OSU Rural-Urban Exchange offers new perspectives

May 14, 2008
A middle school student from Portland milks a goat in Klamath County as a participant in the 4-H Urban/Rural Exchange program.
A middle school student from Portland milks a goat in Klamath County as a participant in the 4-H Urban/Rural Exchange program.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Portland middle school students had an opportunity to experience life on the other side of the urban-rural divide this winter through an award-winning program from Oregon State University.

The students helped milk cows and birth calves, chop wood and clean barns – and they got up at 6 a.m. to do so.

In return, host families from Oregon's Grant, Klamath and Wallowa counties welcomed the students and a few of their parents and teachers to experience rural life. This is the third year that ranch families and students from Sunnyside Environmental School, a southeast Portland school, have participated in the OSU Extension 4-H Urban-Rural exchange program.

Efforts to break through cultural misunderstandings have earned the exchange program two national awards this year. Abigail Kimbell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, presented the 2007 National Excellence in Rangeland Management Award in January to the exchange program for bringing together a diverse group of people to understand natural resource issues from both a rural and urban perspective. Gary Delaney, OSU Extension faculty from Grant County and co-coordinator of the program, accepted the award on behalf of the 4-H youth, Oregon ranchers and farm families and the project staff.

"The exchange also provides a platform of knowledge on which to base decisions on natural resource management," said Maureen Hosty, co-coordinator of the program, which also received the National Association of 4-H Extension Agents 2007 Excellence in Urban Programs award.

In an evaluation of the exchange, Hosty reported, "It's clear there were significant changes in attitudes. The biggest changes were in the students' appreciation of ranchers and rural lifestyles, but also in understanding the need to work together to maintain a healthy environment."

In addition, rural families reported better understanding and appreciation of how urban youth are involved in and understand natural resource management, Hosty said in the report.

Youth from the rural counties also have participated in the exchange, staying five days with Portland host families, riding city buses and the light-rail train, attending urban schools, visiting local festivals and markets and shopping at the mall.

Everyone involved – from both sides of the so-called "cultural divide" – had to set aside their worries and plunge into unfamiliar territory, said 4-H parent volunteer Keith Rolle, who helped launch the program.

"One rancher would have pulled out at the last minute if the inner-city kids had not already been on their way to stay with his family for five days," Rolle said.

Teacher Jan Zuckerman also was worried, although she had helped organize the exchange and was one of the first to spend time on a ranch in Grant County. "I was afraid they would think I was a radical wolf lover," she said.

A year earlier, her students testified at a state Fish and Wildlife Commission hearing as part of a class project on how westward settlement of the United States has affected wildlife. Most were in favor of re-introducing wolves in Oregon. The outcry to the students' remarks from farmers, ranchers and others made it clear that more had to be done to make students aware that some people may have alternative points of view.

The first day of the first exchange, Zuckerman, 20 students and a few parents drove for hours across the Cascades and warily joined their ranch-family hosts for a potluck at a church. But only that first meeting was awkward. At the end of five days, both students and ranch families described the time spent together as the best experience of their lives. "We didn't want to leave," Zuckerman said.

Although she has traveled around the world, Zuckerman said her time on the ranch was more of a cultural difference than visiting other countries. "Although there's a huge divide between us, we had so much in common," she said. Her family and the host family have become good friends. Some of the ranchers are now selling meat directly to participating families.

"We enjoyed the opportunity to talk one-on-one with the students – to hear their views, see their eagerness to learn and watch them change,” one rancher said.

Student comments are another indicator of how the exchange program "is making a profound difference," Zuckerman said. One student said, "The families have a lot more to live through than we do, and I think it's important to know."

Another said, "I really learned how to be open and how to make new friends that have a different life style than me."

The exchange program is sponsored by OSU 4-H Extension programs in Grant, Klamath and Wallowa counties. OSU faculty John Williams, Jed Smith and Deb Schreiber are working with Delaney and Hosty in making plans for the upcoming year that might include an exchange in the fall. There are also plans to expand the three exchanges a year to four.

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Maureen Hosty