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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

Over the past year, rising eight grader Lindsey Shanley had opportunities that many students in small rural towns aren’t often afforded.

Shanley spent this year in virtual talks with astronauts at the International Space Station, a congresswoman in Washington, D.C., professional sports team managers, NASA scientists, executives, and college professors from across the country. She also had regular virtual meetings with her mentor, a student-athlete at Middlebury College in Vermont, to talk about college life, majors and career options, and how to prepare for college.

Shanley lives in Beekmantown, New York, a place in the Adirondack region that is “what you call farm country.” She said these programs made being remote for part of the school year manageable. “It was just nice to know that even though we’re away, we still have people we can talk to and our mentors are online,” Shanley said.

Shanley’s school, Beekmantown Middle School, partnered with the nonprofit College for Every Student (CFES) Brilliant Pathways. CFES is based in nearby Essex, New York, and has been active for 30 years working to help students in rural and urban areas across the country become college- and career-ready. Prior to the pandemic, its college readiness program was mostly offered in person and on site. It included student mentorship, college or career exploration, professional development resources for educators, and help to families trying to figure out the different pathways to college.

While the pandemic created challenges for the nonprofit, including how to make sure students had reliable internet access, the organization discovered a silver lining: In a hybrid world, kids who are often left out had access to wider networks and more opportunities.

The pandemic has only increased the urgency of CFES’s efforts to help kids get to college. Nationwide, rural students already had lower college enrollment rates before the pandemic, but the number of rural students planning to attend college plummeted by more than 18 percent in 2020, according to recent data.

Tapping into their existing network of colleges, business partners and students around the country, CFES was able to connect students from rural towns in upstate New York, rural Texas, and Eastern Tennessee to more urban and diverse communities in Atlanta and Boston. The program offered one-on-one virtual college mentors, virtual campus tours and talks with college professors and current students, along with meetings with various industry professionals and experts from different states.

Program officials said college and corporate business partnerships from around the country allowed them to introduce rural students to professionals in careers they may not have seen or considered.

“We got to meet all of these different people who we wouldn’t necessarily be able to meet with because we’re not from a big town,” Shanley said. “We don’t really get a lot of these opportunities. You don’t have like a bunch of astronauts in space who come from around here, or a bunch of different athletes who come from around here.”

Brett McClelland, program director for CFES North Country Brilliant Pathway, works with students in this rural area, near the Adirondacks in New York.” Credit: Brett McClelland

Brett McClelland is the North Country Brilliant Pathways program director. Before the pandemic, McClelland was a CFES fellow working at Shanley’s middle school. McClelland attended college nearby and has since lived and worked in the area known as New York’s North Country, close to the Canadian border.

Many of the students he works with are from rural backgrounds, from communities where they might not be aware of the variety of local business and career opportunities. McClelland’s students are often the first in their families to go to college, so providing them with mentors, as well as the skills and tools they need to reach college or pursue any career is “very important,” he said.

For example, when McClelland was working in Beekmantown schools, a CFES career interest survey revealed that 62 percent of the male students wanted to be professional athletes, YouTubers or video game players. The program partnered with Champlain College to introduce students to video game design, then paired up with the Kansas City Chiefs to introduce students to sports management professionals. After one year, McClelland said, the 62 percent went down to 19.

The goal wasn’t “crushing dreams,” McClelland said. “We’re providing them alternate avenues and opportunities to continue their passions,” he said. “But within a framework that provides a long-lasting, realistic career and then how to get there.”

Shanley said McClelland and CFES instructors helped her realize that even if she couldn’t be a pro athlete, she could still work in sports as a manager or recruiter or nutritionist. The program also helped her discover her love of STEM.

After meeting with people who work in various sectors, such as finance, science, sports and business, Shanley said she’s learned that she wants to do something hands-on, focused in STEM or athletics.

Shanley said hearing from people on different pathways all over the country — sometimes in communities similar to her own — opened her eyes to the kinds of opportunities available to her and her classmates.

“I really thought I [was] going to go to a big city and work in a big city place because that’s where all the good jobs are,” she said. After going through the seminars with CFES and seeing the opportunities available in her own backyard, Shanley said she can do what she loves in the place she loves without having to move away.

“They showed me that you’re from a small town, but you can still do big things,” she said.

Now, CFES is planning to expand with an initiative specifically for rural students in the North Country region. Earlier this summer, the organization announced a $1.5 million, three-year investment to support low-income students in 20 rural schools, both virtually and in-person.

Students will gain college knowledge, get a mentor, learn how to pay for college, develop study skills, complete CFES’s scholar program, visit colleges in person and virtually, and learn about the job market, according to Rick Dalton, the group’s president and CEO.

This story about CFES was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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Javeria Salman is the digital news producer, and she reports and writes the Future of Learning newsletter. She covers K-12 education issues through the lens of innovation and technology, and helps manage...

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