Over the past few weeks, I have had plenty of opportunities to answer one of the most asked questions of late August and early September: What did you do this summer?
My answer — a newspaper journalism internship — is unlikely to surprise anyone who knows my major and basic career interests, but the location of my internship took a bit more explaining to most people, even native Nebraskans.
For 12 weeks, I spent time in Neligh, Nebraska (pronounced NEE-lee) working for the Antelope County News, Knox County News and Stanton Register weekly newspapers, a far cry from my Kansas City roots.
If you don’t know where that is — and you’re certainly not alone — Neligh is located in rural northeast Nebraska along Highway 275 between Norfolk and O’Neill.
The town of around 1,500 people is the county seat of Antelope County and home to the Neligh Mill State Historic Site. However, neither the town nor the county contains a single stoplight. If I wanted to experience the thrill of impatiently waiting for a light to turn green, I would have to drive nearly 40 minutes east or west.
For reference, I spent the first 18 years of my life living in Overland Park, Kansas, a Kansas City suburb of around 200,000 people within a metropolitan area of more than 2 million. The move to Lincoln for college brought me to a metro area seven times smaller than my sprawling hometown, but one still saturated with urban amenities.
So when I moved to Neligh for the summer, a town 200 times smaller than Lincoln, I did not know quite what to expect. I had some experience from TheDaily Nebraskan and I had taken enough journalism classes to have some sort of expectation for my upcoming newspaper work, but I had never experienced living outside of major metropolitan areas.
It wouldn’t be fair to say I had zero experience in rural Nebraska prior to this summer — after all, I did visit all 87 Runza locations and 93 Nebraska county courthouses last year, much of my 11,000 mile journey taking place along backroads in the Nebraska countryside — but what I didn’t have was any experience of being able to call a rural community home, albeit temporarily.
Three months was hardly a full experience, but it was enough for me to pick up on the intricacies of rural Nebraska that no amount of Internet research or public opinion polls could ever explain.
For this reason, I encourage all city kids to take advantage of internship opportunities in rural areas, even if you don’t intend to spend your career in one.
Rural Nebraskans at UNL get to experience the city through their college years in Lincoln, but few students from urban areas experience a small town lifestyle unless they intentionally seek out an opportunity.
It’s no wonder that 70% of rural Americans said most people who don’t live in rural areas don’t understand the types of problems faced by those who do, a percentage higher than their urban and suburban counterparts.
Every field can benefit from perspectives in both urban and rural areas, but in journalism, understanding rural audiences is especially vital, something many journalists failed to account for in the coverage of Donald Trump’s 2016 election.
Thankfully, my intern role in Neligh got me out of the office and into conversations with rural Nebraskans nearly every day.
I wrote a majority of the articles for the Antelope County News’ Hometown Proud series, which featured a different community each week with articles on local businesses and organizations. This meant that a lot of my assignments took me to towns smaller than Neligh where I was able to have conversations with small business owners and long-time residents.
By the end of my first day on the job, I had learned about pivot irrigation telemetry, grain bin technology and the struggles of grocery stores in shrinking communities throughout a visit to Ewing, Nebraska. I even got to climb to the top of a grain bin and was given a Reinke Irrigation mesh back trucker cap as a welcome gift.
By the end of my internship, I had covered two rodeos, two demolition derbies, two county fairs, six county commissioner meetings, three city council meetings, three school board meetings and two political town halls — one involving an interview with Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.
And through all of this coverage, I gained a newfound appreciation for rural Nebraska as a place defined not by what it lacks, but by what it does possess: namely, social capital.
Nearly every weekend throughout the summer, at least one town in our paper’s coverage area was hosting a celebration, which usually involved several community meals, a parade, volleyball and cornhole tournaments, a concert, and a whole host of activities for kids.
Hundreds of visitors would attend these celebrations, causing the host villages to balloon in size to two or three times their original populations.
Community organizations such as historical societies, young mens’ clubs and local churches put on events ranging from rubber duck races to pool parties.
And even though it wasn’t high school sports season, the community support for little league baseball games was impressive. What these towns lacked in population numbers, they made up for in civic pride.
There are certainly problems in Antelope County, many of which are worse in rural areas than in their urban and suburban counterparts, but that was not my primary takeaway from the experience.
Instead, I found a place that was dominated by family ties, community traditions and high school sports pride that I got to take a small part in for a summer.
If you’re a city kid like me, do yourself a favor and take the chance to head out to the country. You may be surprised at what you find.
Brian Beach is a junior journalism major. Reach him at email@example.com