Nearly a decade ago, St. Olaf College Professor of Political Science Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak began pairing students in her Immigration and Citizenship course with organizations working to integrate immigrants into rural communities.
Students conducted interviews with the organizations, consulted with experts, and reviewed the latest research on immigration to rural parts of the United States, which has increased dramatically over the past two decades. What, they asked local leaders, should — and could — their community do to welcome immigrants?
They then presented their findings on successful practices and initiatives at a conference that Tegtmeyer Pak organized.
It was an exceptional hands-on learning opportunity for students — and it was clear that it was an exceptional resource for organizations on the ground, too. As soon as each conference ended, Tegtmeyer Pak would begin receiving calls and emails requesting copies of the students’ work.
So she asked a simple question: Could they post their papers online so that anyone, anywhere could access them?
“I started looking for a site that compiled information and resources on rural immigration,” Tegtmeyer Pak says. “And to my immense frustration, it just didn’t exist.”
So the idea for the Rural Immigration Network (RIN) — a website dedicated to sharing good ideas and practical information about innovative events, programs, and initiatives that build community among immigrants and longer-term residents in rural towns around the United States — was born.
Over the course of three summers, St. Olaf students have worked on various aspects of the site alongside Tegtmeyer Pak as part of the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program and in the Immigration and Citizenship seminar. CURI provides opportunities for St. Olaf students from all academic disciplines to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular subject by working closely with a St. Olaf faculty member in a research framework.
RIN compiles information examining a wide range of issues: How can communities provide effective intervention for traumatized refugee children? What roles should schools take in incorporating immigrants? What support do immigrants need to develop small businesses in rural areas?
Creating an online resource
This summer, CURI researcher Anna Melugin ’19 took the site to the next level by creating an interactive, online map to share information about rural incorporation activities. The master map represents a first, essential step toward realizing future plans for crowd-sourced responses and public dialogue about immigrant incorporation in rural areas. It serves as a “geo-portal” that makes incorporation information accessible, engaging, and interactive.
“There are so many organizations that are doing really great work with immigrants in rural areas. With RIN, we’re trying to facilitate their ability to learn of each other and learn from each other,” Tegtmeyer Pak says. She hopes the site will become a useful tool for advocates, teachers, health care providers, community event planners, employers, volunteers, public officials, and others.
“There are so many organizations that are doing really great work with immigrants in rural areas. With RIN, we’re trying to facilitate their ability to learn of each other and learn from each other.” — Professor of Political Science Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak
Since the 1990s, rural areas have experienced much faster immigration growth rates than urban areas, due largely to changes in agricultural economies. Towns new to receiving immigrants and refugees can struggle to make sense of new neighbors and may lack the social services infrastructure prepared to work with them. They face complex issues demanding attention from multiple perspectives — including language, cultural, and education studies; public health; social sciences; and demography.
At RIN’s core are “Recipes for Action,” which outline ideas for activities, events, and programs in a recipe-style format that lists necessary resources, desired outcomes, and things for communities to remember when starting new projects.
“The idea is that communities can adjust these ‘recipes’ to fit their specific needs and preferences,” Tegtmeyer Pak says. “But it should at least provide an idea and a framework that they can start with.”
In order to truly facilitate the exchange of ideas and information among rural communities across the country, Tegtmeyer Pak knew she would need to create a network of contributors and editors far beyond campus.
This summer, thanks to the support of an Associated Colleges of the Midwest Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) grant, she hosted the inaugural Engage Immigration conference at St. Olaf. The conference, which gathered 40 faculty members from 10 ACM schools, was the culmination of a yearlong conversation that Tegtmeyer Pak had initiated among these colleagues about her vision for RIN. The conference solidified partnerships across the Midwest and enabled Tegtmeyer Pak to establish a steering committee for RIN.
Tegtmeyer Pak and Melugin also traveled to the Cambio de Colores (“Change of Colors”) annual conference in Missouri this June, where they found a robust network of organizations providing support to immigrants in rural areas.
To create the resource map on the RIN site, Melugin sorted through reports published in the Cambio de Colores Proceedings and the Journal of Extension. She currently has nearly 40 projects mapped, and could have as many as 100 added to RIN by the end of the year.
“There’s all of this good information out there and all of this good work being done by different organizations,” says Melugin, a political science and studio art major at St. Olaf. “The idea is to share this information in a way that’s visual and engaging and easy to understand.”
Tegtmeyer Pak emphasizes that there’s still a lot of work to do on RIN. Yet, she says, it’s already illustrated that there’s a lot of good work happening in small communities across the country.
“RIN has grown up in the heating up of our national immigration debate — but it remains focused on how we build community together,” Tegtmeyer Pak says. “For all the ugliness in our national debates, there are a lot of people of goodwill who are earnestly trying to figure out how to live out their lives with small-town values and help others.”