Service in a Rural Setting: Meaningful Programs at Kirtland Community College District

How can rural colleges and universities overcome obstacles such as isolation, lack of resources, and students’ limited time and still provide meaningful community service Federal Work-Study opportunities? The Kirtland Community College district covers four counties and the closest town is seven miles away. Almost entirely a commuter campus, the college has many students who drive 50-75 miles each way. Kirtland’s program model offers strategies for overcoming challenges typically faced by rural campuses.


Nicholas Holton Service-Learning Coordinator

Discussions at the federal level concerning increases to the required percentage of Federal Work-Study (FWS) funds for community service have sent many institutions scurrying to find more service options for student employees. Urban colleges and universities have a virtual smorgasbord of community service options close by. Many urban postsecondary institutions can point with well-deserved pride to their outstanding community partnerships. Rural colleges are bound by the same requirements for community service FWS as urban institutions. Indeed, rural areas have the same community problems and require the same services, albeit from smaller governmental entities. Considering the great distances that rural areas encompass along with relative lack of civic infrastructure, however, one can imagine the problems that rural community colleges face in providing meaningful community service options for FWS students. How can rural colleges and universities turn these obstacles into meaningful opportunities for our students? The following examines problems for rural colleges in three critical areas of responsibility, along with potential solutions.


Institutional obstacles to community service FWS include the large geographic areas covered by rural colleges and universities and financial constraints.

Geographic Area

Kirtland Community College is located in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. The community college district covers four counties, and the closest town is seven miles away. The college is almost entirely a commuter campus, and many students drive 50-75 miles to campus and back. Trying to coordinate community service FWS opportunities for students in this large region is a constant struggle. One strategy that worked for Kirtland was to discover a common community need in all localities and allow students to work in their hometowns. Since all communities have schools, our staple community service placement are the America Reads and America Counts literacy programs. Another example is nursing students who serve at local health departments providing flu shots during the early winter months. This provides students with much-needed practice giving injections while relieving the local health department personnel during a busy time of the year. Rural college districts have some features that campuses can take advantage of in designing FWS programs. For example, the district might have a common natural phenomenon that the college can use to provide service opportunities. The National Forest Service, The Department of Natural Resources, and other agencies can engage students to plant trees, conduct environmental studies, or serve on other outdoor projects. Tourism is often a large portion of the economy for rural areas. Students could work at travelers’ bureaus, tourism commissions and other governmental entities. At Kirtland Community College, the Ausable River, nationally known for its great trout fishing and scenic beauty, cuts right through the district. Currently, Kirtland students do etymological stream studies assisting river restoration efforts. The key is to leverage regional resources, such as natural resources agencies, to provide community service placements for students.

Financial Constraints

Rural colleges often face financial constraints, and demands on FWS resources can be high. Despite tight budgets and competing priorities, however, it is worth the investment in community service FWS to ensure regulatory compliance (not to mention the multitude of benefits for students and the community). Rural instiutions do have some advantages in placing community service students without subtantially increasing administrative costs. Fewer students and less bureaucracy often mean quicker response time, less administrative interference, and the chance to place students more quickly.


Rural communities face a number of issues, real and imagined, that affect the ease with which institutions can implement community service FWS programs. These issues include low population densities as well as fragmented and highly distributed community agencies.

Low Population Densities

It is a common misperception that low population densities mean a lack of community needs. This myth is based on the small scale of community services that are found in rural communities. Many people think that the “country” is some idyllic utopia that eliminates all social problems. Urban/suburban parents sometimes send troubled youth to country schools to get them away from trouble. Unfortunately, these children often face the very temptations and trials they left to avoid. In fact, rural areas experience the same problems that urban and suburban communities face. The agencies needed to address these problems are often small and inadequately funded. This is where the rural college can help by providing FWS student employees to fill the gaps in services provided.

Fragmented Community Agengies

Multiple fragmented community agencies in rural areas contribute to the lack of any inter-agency infrastructure. Small county-based community agencies seldom communicate outside of their jurisdiction. The FWS placement office must have many connections over several counties just to place a few students. Usually, however, it only takes one or two college officials to meet with local agencies to draft an agreement that is easily ratified by the administrative leadership of the two organizations. These partnerships can be easily initiated, developed, and implemented. Creating exemplary community partnerships is especially difficult in rural areas because the agencies (and college personnel) are distributed across the state. That makes it hard for staff to be familiar with all the community agencies in all localities. Kirtland Community College has addressed this problem by creating a community partner database. The database is used for all community partner interactions at Kirtland, including participation in college-sponsored events, student referrals for community service, and listings on our web page. These partners are contacted each year to gain feedback and criticism of the community service placements and potential for new initiatives.


Student engagement can be sporadic on the rural campus. This is due to two seemingly insurmountable obstacles: student distribition and demographics.


Many rural colleges are often commuter campuses, with students living 75 miles or more away from campus. Many Kirtland students drive two or three hours a day to get to campus and back. Students hesitate to do anything that adds to their commute, including driving to an off-campus work-study site. To ease this issue, it is imperative that rural colleges maximize the number and variety of community service placements in all locations around the college district. Students are more likely to choose community service placements that are close to home and easily accessible.


The basic demographics of the rural work-study student can be a serious problem. With a median age of 28-30 and a majority who are female (many of them mothers), rural students are often have little time to think about more than academic and personal survival. Some students just want to get in, get credentialed, and get out. They limit work-study placements to positions at the college to save time and travel money. Rural colleges have an obligation to encourage civic engagement while respectfully understanding the unique circumstances faced by rural students. For example, the opportunity to provide service to the community is dismissed by many students as something that has little to do with training for a career. Rural colleges can alleviate this view by providing community service FWS opportunities that offer real-world training in relevant fields.


The rural college faces obstacles to community service FWS placements that urban and suburban colleges can avoid. Fortunately, many of these obstacles can be opportunities for the diligent Work-Study office. Small rural colleges are often out of the spotlight of the national media, but many of the most innovative and unique student employee programs are happening in these colleges. Community service FWS programs are often judged solely on the percentage of students in community service placements. I contend that programs should also be measured against the value of the service to the community and the example the college and student body sets within that community. Federal requirements mandate percentages, but if the student body is actively engaged in meaningful community service that provides quality experiential educational opportunities, then the college has met the spirit and intent of the federal regulations — and, more importantly, the college has moved closer to becoming a model citizen in the community.

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