Jeff Yost: Operation Discovery – College students uncover community strengths through Hometown Internships

Our Nebraska hometowns are a gift—maybe one we too often take for granted.

A good friend of mine once told me that gifts don’t become gifts until they are given, received and appreciated. College students who participated in this summer’s Hometown Internships, a Nebraska Community Foundation program, took that message to heart this summer. This year, their assignment—“Operation Discovery”—focused on helping them uncover the magic of their communities through experiential learning.

NCF’s Hometown Internship program started small in 2020, but has grown significantly with twenty-one students participating in paid internships through their local Nebraska Community Foundation affiliated fund this year. The concept is simple – students return to their hometown for the summer and work on projects determined by the community and student interest and talent— no intern experience is the same. Some help with heritage tourism, others organize youth service camps, the only limits are the student’s passions and the community’s dreams. Intertwined with those projects are opportunities for interns to learn from each other, share ideas and foster appreciation for their hometowns while contributing to community development efforts at the local and statewide level. In 2023, Hometown Interns were stationed in 15 different Nebraska communities, including Arthur, Deshler, Diller, Exeter, Friend, Garfield County, Hebron, Hickman, Howells, Leigh, McCook, Red Cloud, Rock County, Shickley and Wauneta.

Hometowns prosper when we recognize a community’s assets and build on those strengths. When we direct our focus away from scarcity to abundance. From deficiency to opportunity. When we map our communities’ assets, from beloved restaurants to beautiful parks to exemplary schools, we discover an alternate approach to community development. We discover a path that embraces our towns’ quirks, charms, and niches. All the things that make it feel like home.

That’s what interns did at the beginning of summer. They were asked to identify and share their findings from exploring their community and interviewing residents. They then used those findings to inform their plans for their town’s future. They detailed the experience in love letters to their communities, which they shared with NCF volunteers, board and staff. Their reflections exemplified why we structure these internships the way we do. Interns build upon existing relationships in their community—using new perspectives gained during their time away from their hometowns to view their places in a new light.

Each intern’s findings led them to realize our best assets are people—our fellow Nebraskans. Our friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, business owners, artists—that mix of humanity is what makes a community unique. This discovery, many interns said, brought them emotionally closer to their home. Over the course of summer, they developed new perspectives and appreciation of their community. They saw it as the gift it was. They shared that with their neighbors who may have forgotten that as well. One intern said she would never be able to look at a small town again without trying to discover its assets.

Interns’ letters effused gratitude, not simply for the opportunity but for the support they received. These young Nebraskans said they felt welcomed, heard and valued by their communities. Many said they felt trusted to use their talents to improve their towns and empowered by the knowledge their supervisors had full faith in their capabilities. These community leaders encouraged interns to dive deep into their work and gave them the freedom to explore their talents and strengths as they mapped their communities’ assets.

Supervisors said support went in both directions. Being involved in the program led these adults to see the innovation and insight young people bring to our communities. And they saw their own personal growth alongside their interns. To paraphrase one intern, the experience impacted who they are and who they will be.

NCF’s Hometown Internships have an impact that goes beyond a single summer. Interns themselves say they are eager to watch the trajectory of the projects they began this year as volunteers continue their efforts. Many say they want to return next year to continue their work. Some have already expressed plans to return to Greater Nebraska after college as they embark on their careers. All of them said the experience changed who they are and how they feel about their hometown. They realized what we all need to remember every so often: our hometowns are gifts – we just need to receive them and appreciate them.

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