Highlanders and Hoyas meet at Selu to ‘deconstruct rural-urban divide’
Radford University’s Appalachian Regional and Rural Studies Center and Georgetown University’s Baker Center for Leadership and Governance collaborated this summer to offer students a three-day interactive program called Hoyas and Highlanders: Deconstruct the Rural-Urban Divide.
Held at Radford University’s Selu Conservancy, the experimental learning program was designed to offer eight students from each university an opportunity to explore in-depth conflict resolution skills and to develop cultural dexterity needed to serve as a bridge between urban and rural communities, said Theresa Burris, who serves as chair of Radford University’s Appalachian Studies Program and director of the Appalachian Regional and Rural Studies Center.
Burriss and Rachel Milner-Gillers, adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Director of the Georgetown Baker Negotiation Network, served as the program’s faculty facilitators.
They guided students through techniques to understand and manage typical conflict sources in challenging conversations and to build skills to navigate contentious, value-based discussions.
Students were asked to respond anonymously to a survey regarding the effectiveness of the program. One Radford University student wrote:
“I feel that I was able to work through conflicts more easily because I really focused my attention on the active listening discussion we had. I feel that it is important to fully engage in the conversation by listening to what the other individual has to say and not be so quick to jump into any conclusions.”
The 16 students and faculty engaged in classroom and outdoor experiences, such as canoeing on the Little River, climbing on the Radford University ropes course, hiking on a nature trail, and visiting rural communities.
“I strongly feel that my perceptions about urban communities have changed, because everyone was so inviting and it was a thrill to find the others always curious to know more about the people and environment within a rural area,” wrote a Radford University student on the anonymous survey.
The Hoyas and Highlanders program was the brainchild of Don Martin, chief counsel for the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee and a native of Wytheville.
“I am a native of Southwest Virginia who has spent the past several years living in cities like Richmond and Washington, D.C. So, I am deeply entrenched in the current divide between rural and urban America,” Martin said. “As someone who loves both rural and urban America, I wanted to bring students from both of those worlds together to demystify ‘the other’ and develop an appreciation for a different way of living.”
The point of the program “is not to convince urban students that rural life is better or vice versa,” Martin said. “My goal was to develop a baseline of mutual respect so the students can let down their guards, be willing to be honest with each other, and – most importantly – learn from each other.”
The Hoyas and Highlanders program was such a success that a second program has been scheduled for early October.
“This time, the Radford University Highlanders will travel to D.C. to join the Georgetown Hoyas on their urban turf,” Burris said.
Over the three-day experience, the students will continue building leadership and negotiation skills, while also meeting with elected officials and their staff on Capitol Hill, visiting and hearing from a D.C. community in transition and checking out signature tourist destinations.
“We are excited to continue this pilot project, which we anticipate offering to other students at our institutions in years to come,” Burriss said.