Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

To better understand how the other half of the state lives, students from Oregon’s most rural campus and its most urban came together last summer for a six-day mobile classroom where they learned about everything from homelessness to rattlesnakes.

On a late summer evening, 11 students from Eastern Oregon University and Portland State University, along with their professors and a few locals, pulled tables together at the Imnaha Tavern and ordered beers, hamburgers, gizzards and French fries. Dinner followed a two-hour discussion with a panel of representatives from local health, education and government at the two-room Imnaha School.

Laurel Singer, executive director of the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State, said the idea for the rural-urban ambassador program came about when Tom Insko, Eastern Oregon University president, was launching Eastern’s Rural Engagement and Vitality Center, which partners with rural communities to transform challenges into opportunities through applied research, public policy analysis, community education and outreach programs.

Singer said Portland State was already working closely with Insko when a conversation began about working together to develop career paths for students that would lead to solving the state’s issues in both rural and urban environments.

Singer said, “We wanted to (find answers to)ask the question, ‘How do you start to build understanding to develop policies sensitive to a bigger view?’”

Portland State already had a training program in collaborative governance, said Steve Greenwood, director of training and academic services for the National Policy Consensus Center, when he and Singer approached Eastern Oregon University staff about developing a course for students from both schools.

"We thought EOU students could learn about urban development, and PSU students could learn about rural issues," Greenwood said.

From those discussions the Urban-Rural Ambassadors Summer Institute was formed, a two-week, six-credit course.

The major impetus behind the institute, Greenwood said, was to get the next generation of leaders talking to each other.

“The social trend is a lot of urban and rural Oregonians are only talking to themselves. There is not a lot of communication between the two,” he said.

Spending 11 days together in a van was a good start.

Portland State student Scotty Johnson, who is studying community development and conflict resolution, said he took the course to see how rural communities deal with issues such as poverty and crime. He grew up in the St. John’s neighborhood of Portland, which he described as culturally diverse, yet his cultural worldview was widened by visiting rural Oregon.

Toward the end of their tour, Johnson said, his image of an Eastern Oregon rancher was blown when he had a chance to meet some face-to-face.

“I expected someone who owns his own land and has stability in Eastern Oregon to be cocky and not understand the working man, but it wasn’t like that,” Johnson said. “They are people who want to pass their wisdom down.

See more in Monday's edition of The Observer.