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The urban-rural divide: Stanford’s most pernicious bubble?

Great attention is being paid to our nation’s growing political divide, and a review of electoral maps illustrates that this divide correlates closely with geography in that rural areas tend to be more conservative than urban areas. Polls also show that conservatives increasingly view colleges and universities as places of liberal hegemony not to be trusted. We should all be concerned with the causes of this division and mistrust. What can and should we do about them? How does this show up at Stanford?

I grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, and in the rare experience of connecting with faculty, staff and students who grew up in similar ways, we often bond over shared experiences of working on a farm, participating in 4-H and being part of rural community life.

However, fewer than 5 percent of domestic students in the last four undergraduate classes were from places the U.S. Census Bureau deems “rural,” while 19.3 percent of the U.S. population live in these areas. Domestic rural communities are therefore underrepresented at Stanford by a factor of four. And we know that about 5 percent of Stanford’s undergraduate alumni live in domestic rural places.

These are voices we aren’t hearing enough at Stanford, and it is in our personal and national interests to find a way to be in dialogue with them. In order to foster concern for and understanding of anything unfamiliar, a person needs regular and ongoing exposure to that thing and mentors to serve as guides.

Stanford has great opportunities to improve in both of these areas with respect to rural communities. For example, of the more than 560 students who participated in a Cardinal Quarter (full-time, off-campus public service fellowship or internship) last year, fewer than 20 were in communities with under 25,000 residents. Interestingly, nearly all of those students grew up in rural areas.

To encourage engagement across the urban-rural divide, the Haas Center is piloting a Rural Summer Fellowship to complement our Urban Summer Fellowship, which has existed since 2000. We’ve forged a partnership with a small, innovative nonprofit called the Spring Initiative that does youth development and social justice work in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta and the cradle of the Blues.

As part of our commitment to building an inclusive community at Stanford, we need to work to better connect with and understand rural America. I hope you’ll consider ways to burst what is perhaps Stanford’s most pernicious “bubble” — the urban-rural divide.

Please Note: The Haas Center and the Bill Lane Center for the American West will be hosting a meeting on January 11 to discuss how we currently engage with domestic rural communities and how we might expand those efforts.

If you are interested in joining this conversation, please email Thomas Schnaubelt at thomas.schnaubelt ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Thomas Schnaubelt is the Assistant Vice Provost and Executive Director of the Haas Center for Public Service. 

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