The Rural Recruiter: Daryl Burleigh’s Road Map for Reaching Students in Far-Flung Corners of Pennsylvania
About This Project
The photo essay was created by Michael Theis, photo and media editor, with narrative by Alexander C. Kafka, senior editor. Erica Lusk, senior photo and media editor, edited the photographs. Carmen Mendoza, senior web producer, and Luna Laliberte, editorial-events coordinator, coordinated interviews.
Get ready for a little culture shock, try new things, join clubs, and enjoy all that a city campus has to offer.
That, remembers 19-year-old Mark Christina, was the advice Daryl Burleigh, a rural recruiter for the University of Pittsburgh, gave students on a visit to Western Wayne High School in rural Pennsylvania when Christina was weighing where to go to college. Christina’s father and older sister had both gone to the University of Pittsburgh, so even though Philadelphia was closer, he ultimately chose Pitt. During finals week at the end of his first year there, Christina says he has settled in. He’s thinking of majoring in finance, has joined a fraternity, plays intramural soccer and basketball, and recently went to a Pirates game.
“I went from a school that was like 99-percent white,” he says, and “all of a sudden you cross every cultural barrier.” He says that “it was definitely interesting, a good change, I would say.”
Twenty-one percent of rural Americans 25 or older had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2019, compared with 35 percent of Americans in cities. That gap is almost three times as big as it was in 1970. Almost 7.5 million public-school students, close to one in seven, are enrolled in rural districts. Serving more of them fits with many colleges’ missions and would also help bolster enrollment, which is facing demographic headwinds. Efforts like the $20-million STARS College Network and the rootEd Alliance aim to improve the situation by increasing information, advising, and financial resources for rural students. Individual colleges are also upping their outreach through designated rural recruiters, like Pitt’s Burleigh. Almost a quarter of the university’s undergraduates, 24.3 percent, come from rural areas.
Burleigh knows the territory. He grew up in Pleasant Mount, a community of about 1,200 residents in Wayne County. Before starting his job at Pitt almost two years ago, he held similar recruiting jobs at Marywood University, a private Catholic institution in Scranton, for two years, and then at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania for four years.
Burleigh, 41, was an only child and a first-generation college student. He grew up on a dairy farm started by his grandparents and run by his uncle. He sometimes worked on the farm alongside two slightly older cousins. Burleigh’s parents worked in factories and his mother, especially, strongly encouraged Burleigh to go to college.
He went to Penn State and, influenced by the events of 9/11, chose to major in international relations. He’d enjoyed being a snowboarding instructor at Elk Mountain, and after he earned his bachelor’s degree, he was drawn to teaching.
Burleigh knew a lot of teachers who had earned their certifications at East Stroudsburg, so he did the same, then taught social-studies classes as a substitute. He became interested in special-education programs, and decided to return to school yet again for a specialized master’s degree, this time at Marywood. While earning the master’s degree, he started working full time as a recruiter in exchange for a tuition benefit, and in that position he discovered a new career path.
“I loved just the energy at college campuses and wanted to seek a career in higher ed,” he says.
As Pitt’s sole exclusively rural recruiter, Burleigh is often on the road, away from his dad, who lives in Pennsylvania, and from Burleigh’s partner, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Burleigh drives more than 10,000 miles a year while on the job, as far as five hours to the next pin on his Google map. During an academic year, Burleigh does a combined 85 to 90 school presentations and college-fair appearances, and he connects with roughly 1,600 students.
Many of those students and their parents worry about affordability, about the long drive to Pittsburgh, about their chances of getting in, and about the nuts and bolts of the application and financial-aid process.
Burleigh makes sure to emphasize the importance of October 1 of students’ senior year — the first day to file their financial-aid information. Start early, he urges them, because that FAFSA form is no picnic. Yes, Pitt has rolling admissions, he confirms — but he suggests that students not delay because spots do fill up. He makes sure students have his contact information so he can help answer questions throughout the process and connect them with colleagues to coordinate campus visits.
Burleigh’s longtime connections with high-school counselors help identify students for whom Pitt might be an attractive option. It’s an R1 research university with excellent academics, Burleigh explains to students, and has Division I athletics and relatively small class sizes. It has all the excitement, pro-sports fandom, and cultural riches of a major city, but it’s less intimidating than Philadelphia or New York — “a good introduction to urban life.”
Matthew Fitzsimmons went to school with Burleigh and attended college at Pitt, and now works as a school counselor and guidance-department head at Western Wayne High School. With baby boomers aging out of careers in the trades, rural students tend to weigh college against shorter, specific training in the automobile industry, diesel, HVAC, computer-science fields, and other industries, Fitzsimmons says. But students find Burleigh “highly relatable – he knows what they’re going through.”
Burleigh’s year is composed of the four seasons of the recruiting and admissions cycle. Fall is the most intense, with frequent travel for presentations or college fairs, starting local and working his way out to more distant areas, while leaving one day a week for email follow-ups and other paperwork. From November through February, he mainly spends his time reviewing applications. Springtime is a mix of recruiting and working with admitted students to help them decide on a college, or, if they pick Pitt, help them prepare. Summer is for professional development, conferences, and planning fall strategies and logistics.
“Although it can get tiring at times,” Burleigh says, “being on the road is one of my favorite parts of the job. Meeting with students and school counselors and sharing my enthusiasm for what Pitt has to offer is always energizing. Taking in the landscape and beautiful views between visits never gets old.” He builds in time for desk work and workouts, which help him unwind and clear his mind.
Recruiters typically return to the Pitt campus at least once a quarter for engagement activities. Recently, Burleigh was on campus for Admitted Student Day. There he watched a cannon burst confetti over some potential Pitt Panthers he first encountered in farm and factory country.
When Burleigh meets with high-school students, he holds himself up as a model — of what not to do when considering colleges. He did little research, based his list on where his friends were applying, and didn’t visit the campus.
He was lucky, though.
“Everything worked out,” he says. “I ended up liking college so much I didn’t ever want to leave.”