UGA PROPEL Rural Scholars Program Provides Experiential Learning for UGA Students

Rhiannon Eades

Friday, March 15th, 2024

The University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government is now accepting applications for the 2024-2025 PROPEL Rural Scholars program.

The Institute of Government launched the award-winning PROPEL (Planning Rural Opportunities for Prosperity and Economic Leadership) program in 2021 with funding from the U.S. Department of Agricultureand additional support from the UGA Foundation. The program guides rural communities through a multi-step process to develop and implement a plan to advance their economies. It helps communities build resiliency and capacity for long-term economic success. PROPEL was awarded top honors in the Place category at the 2023 University Economic Development Association (UEDA) Awards of Excellence.

UGA undergraduate students have the opportunity to engage in work through PROPEL through the two-semester PROPEL Rural Scholars program, an experiential learning opportunity that equips future leaders with knowledge and experience that will empower them to take roles in economic development, community development and civic leadership.

The current team of PROPEL Rural Scholars is comprised of 15 UGA undergraduate students. The scholars spent last fall learning about Georgia’s trends in population, economic and community development, small businesses and community engagement. They visited the south Georgia city of Baxley, an inaugural PROPEL community, where they met residents and toured local businesses to learn more about the impact of the PROPEL program there.

This spring, the scholars are working alongside UGA Public Service and Outreach mentors and community leaders in four PROPEL communities on projects ranging from tourism promotion to data collection.

Margaret Hart is a political science and international affairs major who is also pursuing an MPA as a Double Dawg. She is one of four scholars collecting public input from Ben Hill County business community members and property owners to gauge interest in downtown revitalization projects for Fitzgerald, the only city in the county.

“While I have family in rural Michigan, I knew I had a lot to learn about rural communities in my home state. I hope to forge connections with local rural stakeholders and gain a boots-on-the-ground perspective from residents themselves to inform my future career in policy,” Hart said. “I am lucky to have a project focused on public input, so I can interact with Fitzgerald business leaders and property owners to best understand the opportunities and challenges they face.”

Alex Crabb, a civil engineering major, is part of a team working on a communication project in Pulaski County.

“It’s exciting. So far we’ve had our first meeting with some of the community leaders in Pulaski County to get some initial feedback on our project,” he said. “We learned a lot from the presentations in the fall, and now we get to apply what we’ve learned.”

PROPEL Rural Scholars are also working with Burke County and the Lower Chattahoochee Council of Governments, which includes Clay, Quitman, Randolph and Stewart counties.

Hart and Crabb both said they are gaining valuable experience and making important connections as PROPEL Rural Scholars, and they recommend the experiential learning opportunity to other students.

“The jobs I plan to pursue involve working with communities. In my major, I have learned a lot about what goes into projects, but I want to better understand a community’s needs in addition to what I’m learning in the classroom,” Crabb said. “The [PROPEL] Rural Scholars program gives me a well-rounded experience.”

“I strongly recommend the program, especially if you are not from a rural area. While that may seem counterintuitive, the interactions you will have with colleagues and stakeholders from rural areas will build a deep understanding of and appreciation for rural life in Georgia that should be included in any career,” Hart added.

Greg Wilson, the Institute of Government faculty member who leads PROPEL, said the Rural Scholars program has been an important component of PROPEL’s record of success.

“The PROPEL Rural Scholars program has grown every year, and it is easy to see why,” Wilson said. “The communities we serve benefit from the students’ fresh perspectives, and the students get hands-on experience. I encourage all students who are interested in rural Georgia to apply for next fall’s program.”

Applications for the 2024-2025 PROPEL Rural Scholars program are open through March 27. For more information, visit the PROPEL Rural Scholars page on the Institute of Government website.