Every year, hundreds of high school seniors across Greater Nebraska earn their diplomas and venture out into the world beyond the city limits. They seek education in distant locales, employment in larger communities, and a place to call their own.
It’s a persistent and insistent narrative. The small-town student leaves for the big city and its myriad opportunities, lively entertainment and unfamiliar faces. In the traditional telling, the students come back home to visit, but rarely do they come back for good.
Today, however, many Greater Nebraska youth are telling a different story—among them are thirteen bright and ambitious young people, also known as Nebraska Community Foundation’s Hometown Interns. These students will spend their summer doing their part to serve and improve the Ainsworth, Boone County, Brown County, Columbus, Hebron, Imperial, McCook, Nebraska City, Neligh, Nemaha County, Perkins County, and Valley County communities.
Nebraska Community Foundation works with over 250 communities across the state to pursue quality of life solutions that attract people home or to our communities for the first time. This year, we kicked off a new initiative—NCF’s Hometown Internship Program—which brings students back to their hometowns to work with their local Nebraska Community Foundation affiliated funds in vital ways, including community visioning and engagement, asset mapping, afterschool programming, heritage tourism, communications and support for ‘The Dream Switch,” a community-centered arts project. The opportunity was made possible through challenge grants offered by NCF’s board of directors to ensure students would be compensated for their work.
The stories these interns share are those of commitment and investment in their hometowns. Take Hebron Community Foundation Fund intern Dakota Cherney for example. He thought he had seen all there was to see in his community when he left for college, but he’s since learned there’s not much substance to the stigma of returning to one’s hometown.
“About a month later, I soon realized laundry doesn’t just do itself, and I quickly found myself in my car, once again, coming back home to Nebraska,” he wrote in a column for the Hebron Journal-Register. “After a weekend of fresh, home-cooked meals and family time, I was on my way back to college once again with clean underwear and a new appreciation for where I came from. You see, it took me to move away and come back to realize just how much I value what we have here in Thayer County.”
When NCF announced this year’s Hometown Interns, I said they would assuredly gain from their experience serving their communities, and I added that the entire NCF network would have much to learn from the students about what they seek in their future homes.
If we listen to their stories, we might learn that the place they’re looking for is closer than we think. As Dakota wrote, it might be a place where “strangers are welcomed with a big Nebraskan ‘hello’” and where neighbors help each other without expecting anything in return. And if we listen closely, we might learn that we can play a big part in helping them rediscover their hometown as their own place to grow and flourish. All it might take to make our youth feel welcome is an invitation. Perhaps that’s an internship opportunity, or perhaps it’s much simpler than that.
“To this day, I have never been asked to move back to this area,” Dakota wrote. “If the young adults of my generation are not invited to move back home by you, then who is going to ask them?”
Thayer County heard Dakota’s story. Since the publication of his column, he has received more than 30 invitations to move back to the area permanently after he graduates from Kansas State University.
Around the state, young Nebraskans are looking for their place in the world. For many of them, that place could be right where their story started. It’s up to us to make that apparent to them. We don’t need to roll out the red carpet, but we need to extend the invitation and offer them the opportunity to make their hometown their own. They need to know it is a valued and honorable path to return.