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Reaching Rural Students: The STARS Network Hits the Road

About This Video

This video is part of a yearlong Chronicle visual series that highlights the challenges facing students from underrepresented and underserved communities. The series is part of the Different Voices of Student Success project, which is supported by the Ascendium Education Group.

The film was shot and edited by filmmaker and multimedia journalist Christiana Botic. Michael Theis, a senior web producer at The Chronicle, directed the project. Erica Lusk, senior photo and media editor, consulted on the project, and senior editor, Maura Mahoney, contributed and edited.

Maryann Dang, 18, grew up in Winona, a rural town in Mississippi that is so small, she says, people stop in for “just a little bit, to get gas on the way to somewhere else, or to, like, pick up some food, but they never really stay.” She herself never expected to leave Winona after high school, and assumed colleges were looking for “high-level kids from the big cities that did all these competitions and won all these awards.” Midway through high school she realized that colleges look for “all types of kids, and one of those types is rural kids.”

The Small Town and Rural Students (STARS) College Network, a partnership of 16 colleges across the country, is dedicated to finding, reaching out to, and supporting students like Dang. Founded two years ago, the network includes the California Institute of Technology and colleges including Columbia, Yale, Ohio State, and Vanderbilt Universities.

We want to help “small-town and rural students to get them to our colleges, but also through our colleges,” says John Palmer Rea, an admissions officer at Vanderbilt University and the STARS program director.

This short film follows Palmer Rea and a group of STARS recruiters on a trip together, going from stop to stop across the South, meeting and holding events for rural students — to learn more about them and to help them gain a clearer understanding of potential higher-ed opportunities.

Supporting rural students more effectively is critical to the interests of higher education, to fill seats on campus in an era of declining demographics and to fulfill its mission of fostering social mobility and economic opportunity. Those students have much to offer, bringing diverse perspectives and transferable skills to campuses. “There’s something to be said,” says Palmer Rea, “for all of those kinds of things you just learn by being in a small-town community, because a college is kind of a small town.”