PSU and Eastern Oregon urban-rural ambassador program bridges the town and country divide
Author: Katy Swordfisk
Posted: November 7, 2019
 For the second year, students from Portland State University and Eastern Oregon University ate, roomed, traveled and learned together. 

Their partnership is part of a two-week immersive program where students live and travel through rural and urban places in Oregon exploring urban-rural connections along the way. This year’s program ran from Sept. 12 to 21.

The Urban-Rural Ambassadors Summer Institute launched last year as a cooperative designed to provide students with an opportunity to work together and come away with a deeper understanding of the similarities and differences between urban and rural life and how to work collaboratively on solutions.

Both universities are providing funding for students and programming for the six-credit course.

The instructional team included EOU Chemistry Professor Christopher Walsh and PSU Urban Studies & Planning Assistant Professor Megan Horst and Kristen Wright, a project manager and facilitator with the National Policy Consensus Center from PSU.

“It’s a really interesting and unique partnership for these universities,” Wright said.

This year the program focused on four issues: food systems and food security, land use and working lands, housing and homelessness, and climate change and environmental quality.

 Wright said the homelessness and housing issue especially resonated with students who were struck by the similar struggles to find adequate housing across the urban-rural experience.

“They use the issues as a lens for looking at where there are commonalities and differences between the people experiencing these issues and working to solve them in both urban and rural areas,” she said. 

Anthony Tortorici, a PSU senior studying community development, participated in the Urban Rural Exchange Program this year, said he was hoping to take away a better understanding of the issues that rural communities face, as well as an understanding of what urban planning looks like in a rural context.

“What I actually took away was so much more than that. I came out with an understanding of the issues that rural communities face, and an understanding of planning in the context of eastern Oregon,” Tortorici said. “I also learned about the people of La Grande. I learned a lot about Portland, which I didn't expect to, being that it is my home.”

Other students said the experience is something they will carry forward with them in their life and as professionals.

"I loved the opportunity to learn really useful information as well as a lived experience with so many amazing students,” a student said as part of their program evaluation. “I've learned to accept differences and to be confident and understanding in order to work well with people as a team."

Tortorici said working and living with his classmates was perhaps the greatest takeaway from the experience as it fostered collaborative and close relationships during the course.

Wright agreed that the lived experience approach presents a unique opportunity to build community and work together to problem-solve.

“We want them to have this lived experience in place, learning from people in these places and walk away from it as ambassadors to build bridges, find connections and do work together to solve issues,” she said.

Photos courtesy of Kristen Wright