Maximizing our Reach: The Institute for Rural Vitality Fellowships

To say the Institute for Rural Vitality at SUNY Cobleskill supports a broad range of initiatives in our communities is a major understatement. So I won’t say it. I will say that thanks to the Institute, among other initiatives at SUNY Cobleskill – including those branching out from the Institute itself – we are able to work with our surrounding community to invigorate our rural setting. This is true in the arts, in commerce, in law, and in agriculture. With the Institute in place, we have the resources and potential to not only support a rural resurgence, but put the wheels in motion on helping propel one. With that mindset and quality individuals by my side, we established the Institute for Rural Vitality.

As the Institute has grown, so has the number of those who have joined together to help it flourish. Today, the Institute supports seven fellowships and six dedicated fellows. At a recent presentation I learned just how deep their passion for success runs.

Kayla Vaughn’s fellowship is revitalizing the College art collection by locating undocumented works of art across campus and creating comprehensive, updated records. She has also moved ahead on collaborating with local programs, and was instrumental in organizing our recent community exhibit at Fenimore Art Museum, as well as February’s Faculty Biennial Art Show. I am inspired by Kayla’s efforts and know that her work will lead to future projects in the arts highlighting the Institute’s Center for Arts and Culture.

I think Dr. Ben Weikert’s fellowship aligns perfectly with his personality and interests. Building on our dairy judging success, Dr. Weikert is creating an Open Educational Resource devoted to a comprehensive livestock evaluation. Few are as knowledgeable about the region’s evolving animal agriculture as Dr. Weikert, who is preemptively building a solution to a lack of educational materials on the full gamut of livestock judging. I am pleased Dr. Weikert is collaborating with our students to build this resource and encourage him to make the finished product available to those in our region it will benefit, as is his plan.

The reach of the Institute is evidenced by Dr. Mary Guerrant and her fellowship. With help from her students, Dr. Guerrant is assessing opioid usage and prevention programs in Schoharie County. In addition to being multifaceted, her work showcases the Institute’s capacity to promote change on a human level. She is capturing the essence of the Institute’s mission: applying resources and educational models from the College to her work. Research in applied psychology has helped Dr. Guerrant establish a platform for her project, and she is exploring programs that use animal therapy and interdisciplinary education as deterrent and prevention strategies.

At this point in the presentation I sensed those in attendance could use a snack. What we got thanks to Dr. Sophie Ano was a sample of dog food, that is also human food, and that completely blows my mind. Let it be known: to help the Institute, I have even eaten dog food.

Really, the granola Dr. Ano served is intended for both human and canine consumption. It is also delicious. As an Institute fellow Dr. Ano conducts research gauging how effective businesses are in branding and marketing their products. This research will serve to help local businesses improve their sales, and help the Carriage House – for which Dr. Ano deserves credit for helping transform – best serve our community.

We ended with Dr. Gail Wentworth sharing the intergenerational support program she has built from scratch. The only one in our county, Dr. Wentworth’s program invites senior citizens to campus to participate in activities with preschoolers and Early Childhood students. This is another project demonstrating how the Institute supports individuals in our communities. The program creates a network for senior citizens, particularly those living with or caring for a loved one living with dementia-related illnesses, to stimulate their minds, bodies, and spirits. The preschoolers develop senses of empathy and understanding, and Early Childhood students earn valuable real-world education.

I continue to spread the word about our Albany Law fellowship, which creates opportunities for SUNY Cobleskill students to put their research skills into practice in support of rural legal policy. Emma Paden is using her fellowship to develop a way to take our mobile equine-assisted therapy programming on the road. This tells me one of our newest programs is excelling. I agree with our fellows that equine-assisted therapy programming may potentially be incorporated into some of these projects.

The ongoing work of our fellows allows me to say with confidence that the Institute is operating exactly as it should be. By supporting fellowship opportunities now and in the future, I am confident the Institute will continue to empower rural communities including our own to thrive.

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