President’s Message

We’ve all heard the phrase “flyover country,” the dismissive term often used by coastal elites to describe the vast middle parts of the nation that they tend—or choose—to ignore. Those two words encapsulate a troubling view—the idea that the nation’s less populated areas are somehow less important or less valuable, that the people there can rightly be overlooked.

No idea could be more wrong—or more dangerous to America’s future. The fact is our rural areas are teeming with human potential. And if we are to prosper as a nation—economically, culturally, politically, socially—we must unlock that potential. We must, through high-quality education programs, fully develop the talent in our rural regions so that it can be unleashed to benefit us all.

That’s what this issue of Focus magazine is about: redefining flyover country as a focal point for a nationwide talent-development effort. In this Focus, you’ll read real-life success stories from several rural students. For instance:

  • You’ll meet Kalyn Jones and Caitlin Davis-Rivers, young women from the vast expanse of far-northern California who overcame huge obstacles to earn their college degrees. Each of the women—now ages 25 and 23, respectively—grew up in a home with a drug-addicted parent and was placed in foster care. But thanks to a program offered by Shasta College, both completed their studies at Shasta and moved on to earn bachelor’s degrees at California State University-Chico.
  • You’ll read about Humberto Perez, a Mexican immigrant who spent his childhood in an impoverished south Texas town once called “Calcutta on the Rio Grande.” Today, 23 years after his arrival there as a toddler, Perez is a college graduate. He works as an admissions counselor for South Texas College, helping other Latino students navigate the often-difficult path to an education.
  • And you’ll hear from Amy Whittaker, 38, a work-release inmate in the Madison Correctional Facility in southern Indiana. Whittaker leaves the prison each weekday to work at a local manufacturing plant. As part of the program, coordinated by Ivy Tech Community College, she’s already earned her certification as a production technician, and next year she expects to be certified in industrial maintenance.

All of these individuals—and many more whose stories we share—offer compelling views from the front lines of rural America, putting a human face on an increasingly important national issue.

I hope you’ll take the time to fully explore this issue of Focus, and that it gives you a better understanding of the state of education attainment in rural America. More important, I hope you’re spurred to action by what you learn here. Rural students are a vast and vital national resource – one we can’t afford to fly over.

Jamie P. Merisotis
President and CEO
Lumina Foundation


Navigating the North State

California’s far-northern tier belies the state’s image as a mecca of wealth and privilege. In fact, with adult poverty rates above 20 percent, this vast rural expanse faces a host of social problems—including poor health, housing insecurity, and drug addiction. But community leaders across a five-county area see the path to progress, and they’ve teamed up to broaden that path for northern California residents. As one leader of North State Together points out: “It all came down to education.”


Standing tall in Texas

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is the fastest-growing region of a booming state—and that presents challenges. Among the biggest: preparing residents for skilled jobs that are cropping up too fast to be filled. This education challenge is particularly acute in south Texas, where the distances are vast, the heritage rural, and the people quite poor; nearly 90 percent of valley residents are considered economically disadvantaged. But an area network called RGV FOCUS is attacking the problem in force.


From ‘The Corridor’ to Clemson

The rural regions along Interstate 95 in South Carolina have long been called the “corridor of shame.” The name stems from a 2005 documentary that showed how decades of grinding poverty and governmental neglect essentially doomed area residents to a Third World education. Progress is still slow along the corridor, but it’s occurring—and a Clemson University program called Emerging Scholars is part of the change.


Climbing the Hoosier hills

In tiny Switzerland and Crawford counties in southeast Indiana, only 17 percent of adults have earned associate degrees (compared with 38 percent for the state overall), and a significant number lack even a high school diploma. Until recently, there were few places where area residents could go to advance their learning. But that’s changing, thanks to a coalition of organizations working to expand educational opportunity in the region: the EcO Attainment Network.


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