Rural Leadership Initiative announces first class of fully-funded students

American Main St scene

By Alex White, columnist ~ “Small towns, big potential”

As a first-generation low-income student from a rural area like Page County, I have seen many of the obstacles facing rural communities in institutions like higher education (and other aspects of the modern economy). I have been alerted to many of those hurdles as the youngest government official in Virginia, and I am now working to fight those as the founder of the Rural Leadership Initiative.

In light of a stunning lack of specific program support for rural students at “top schools” like Harvard, I raised funds to found the Rural Leadership Initiative. RLI is a 501(c)3 stipend program that supports rural students as they pursue projects, initiatives, or internships pertaining to Rural America. We are proud to announce that we have just chosen our inaugural cohort of Rural Leadership Fellows, which includes several top undergraduates with rural backgrounds. 

Each Fellow receives up to $500 in support; they are then asked to record their projects for posterity and to share them with our board (along with each other) at a final conference when their funded activities have concluded. The advisory board overseeing these activities is world-class, including a former governor, several professors, and a senior Federal Reserve official.

This year’s group of Fellows consists of six great students with projects spanning the arts, sciences, and everything in between. Details may be found at this link, and here are some ambitious words directly from three of this year’s Rural Leadership Fellows:

Mahniz Reza – Barnard 2023:

“As an aspiring physician hailing from an underrepresented community, I am very passionate about overcoming the challenges that marginalized communities encounter in the healthcare arena. These challenges are even more prevalent in rural areas due to the lack of resources to investigate medical conditions in minority demographics… Studies have shown that African Americans in rural areas are statistically more likely to progress to chronic Lyme Disease in contrast to White Americans… My initiative is to address this disparity in Lyme Disease recognition in the African American population by engaging in a research study at the Columbia Irving Medical Center as a research assistant investigating these manifestations of lyme disease in African Americans (particularly those in rural areas with access challenges).”

Allanah Rolph – Harvard 2023: 

“I have decided to write a book about my experiences growing up in rural northwest South Dakota and then going to Harvard for college. So far, I’ve interviewed more than 10 other youth who grew up in rural areas to hear about their experiences (especially as it relates to their identities). I want to help people from large cities have a chance to understand what defines rural America and help Rural Americans see where the ‘other half’ is coming from.”

Maxwell Christmas – Harvard 2023:

“This summer, I have written and recorded an album that draws from personal trials, societal grievances, and my upbringing. The first track on the album focuses on misconceptions cultivated in Rural America. Rural America is an incredible, special and amazing place, and it just needs a little bit of awareness to help it become an even greater place. This stipend would be used to professionally master this music, make it radio-ready, and share it on various platforms to spread awareness — not only in my area, but the rest of the nation.”

We are excited to see all of the above take shape. When final reports are in, their stories will be published in-depth. Additionally, all applicants were asked to sign their names to the “Hometown Heroes” Pledge, in which they promise to continue playing a positive role in Rural America.

For more information, see our launch in the Harvard Crimson, check out our website, and contact [email protected] with any questions, comments, or concerns.

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Jack “Alex” White is a student at Harvard University, where he is studying Government. While there, he has become the Policy Director for Harvard Undergraduates for Bipartisan Solutions (HUBS) and Senior Content Editor for the Harvard Economics Review. Alex is a lifelong native of Page County and graduate of Luray High School.

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