Below is an interview with Fonda, Iowa native Michelle Eccher, a student academic assistant for Rural Lit RALLY, a web-based initiative dedicated to preserving and promoting rural literature, advancing the concept of place-based education, and encouraging greater harmony and interactivity between rural schools and the communities they serve. With a mission similar to the Rural Schools Collaborative, Rural Lit RALLY is eager to be a partner and assist RSC in any way that it can. To that end, meet Michelle, a college student at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, IA. This year Michelle will help spread the good news about RSC-inspired work taking place as a result of its small grant program.
By Paul Theobald, Director, Rural Lit RALLY and Dean, Buena Vista University School of Education and Exercise Science
Paul:Tell me about what it was like growing up in a small Iowa farming community? What were the positive aspects of growing up rural?
Michelle: Growing up in a small, Iowa farming community has helped me become the person that I am today. My dad used to be a farmer, and I would always help him out in the fields in his tractor, and we would pick up rocks and throw them in the tractor bucket. While my dad taught me to be strong and independent, my mother taught me to be kind and forgiving. She was a registered nurse, and told me stories about how she took care of elderly patients when they were sick. Both of my parents, who are strong in their faith, taught me about compassion, patience, and love.
It’s great growing up in a smaller community. Everyone knows everybody, and we’re there to help each other out. Even if a stranger is stuck on the side of the road, we make sure that they get the help they need. Sometimes you wish you weren’t “out in the middle of nowhere,” and had access to the big city rush. But honestly, nothing beats late night stargazing and bonfires with those who are most important in your life.
Paul:Why did you decide to attend Buena Vista University?
Michelle: When I visited Buena Vista University, I felt like I was at home. BVU has a gorgeous campus, a wonderful academic program, and they are committed to make sure their students are successful. If I were to choose one main reason why I came to BVU, it is because they treat you like family. The faculty and staff want you to chase your dreams, and they will guide you every step of the way.
Paul:You’re a communication studies major—what are your career aspirations? Do you intend to stay in rural Iowa?
Michelle: I was majoring in elementary education, but after attending many leadership conferences during my high school and college career, I realized that teaching elementary students wasn’t what I wanted to do in life. So instead of working with toddlers, I decided that I wanted to work with college students on the Student Affairs side of a campus. I want to help college students achieve their full potential and build their leadership skills. I always joke that I made a huge leap from toddlers to college students. Some may say there is no difference, but I’ll let you decide!
I know that rural Iowa will always be my home, no matter where or how far I go. I know I want to live in the Midwest near my family, since that is one thing that is very important to me. Right now, I’m just focusing on what I love doing: getting my education at BVU!
Paul: What has it been like working for Rural Lit RALLY?
Michelle: One of the things I like about BVU is that faculty members are so incredibly involved in worthwhile, academically-focused, work. You are a good example. You write books about the role of public education in a democratic society, but you also have a passion for rural literature, so much so that you orchestrate this committed effort to preserving rural novels long out of print, and, actually, getting people to read and discuss those books.
There are small towns all across this state, just like the one I grew up in, that produced world-class novelists and poets, individuals who wrote about the rural context, the pros and cons of farm and small-town life, etc. A few, like Wallace Stegner and Margaret Wilson, even won Pulitzer awards for their rural writing. And yet, growing up, we learned nothing of these individuals. You can drive through the home town of Margaret Wilson, not so far from my home town, and see no mention anywhere of the fact that this was the home of an accomplished literary talent. And there are many such places in this state. Most everyone is familiar with the stage or screen productions of State Fair, but few are aware that they were based on a novel by the same name written by Phil Stong, a native of a small town in southeast Iowa. Go there today and there is no mention of Stong’s literary fame.
You’re trying to orchestrate a kind of literary awakening with Rural Lit RALLY, you’re trying to help Iowans, and rural people everywhere, really, to recognize and celebrate their literary heritage. I find that fascinating and I am eager to help in any way I can. Imagine the good we could do if we could encourage English and history teachers to embrace local literature and introduce it to their students. Or if we could encourage educational leaders to recognize that if we take educational “standards” too far, we will remove anything rural, anything local, right out of the curriculum. Kids need to feel connected to their homes and to their neighbors, a curricular focus on place, especially local literature, could help immensely with that connection.
Michelle and Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com Please share your stories with them and they will help us publicize excellent place-based efforts in rural schools. This partnership is supported in part by a small capacity building grant from the Rural Schools Collaborative. If you would like more information on our grant programs or have a partnership idea, please click here and let us know!
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