The writer, of Nebraska City, is a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She served as a summer intern for the Nebraska Community Foundation.
On July 2, 2019, I started a new journal entry:
“Today was the first day I realized I want to return. I attended a Nebraska City Community Foundation Fund meeting and, as I heard them discuss their ideas for the community, I realized this was something I don’t want to leave behind. I want to be part of helping increase community vitality. I found myself trying to figure out how I could make my future career work while living in this small Nebraska town. ... This place has something special and I can’t just leave it yet.”
I spent my summer interning at Nebraska Community Foundation. I worked remotely from my hometown of Nebraska City and was free to pursue whatever interested me as long as it aligned with the work of the foundation. Much of my work centered around researching why people return to their hometowns, how communities can draw returners home and the importance of relationships in building communities.
There are young people like me all across Nebraska who have always been plugged into their communities. I’ve been encouraged to pursue opportunities and even applied for this internship because of community support. Nebraska City has wrapped its arms around me through my lowest lows and always made me feel appreciated. There are many young people across Nebraska, however, who struggle to feel that love and support and do not have the relationships or enjoy access to the resources that I do. It doesn’t have to be this way. We need to connect to each person and show them they are not and will never be alone because they have a hometown that cares deeply about them.
Building community is first about creating a sense of belonging for every citizen. When people feel like they belong, they become invested in other key facets of community. This requires connecting, it requires giving people a voice, it requires habitually reaching out to our neighbors and showing love until they feel like they have a place in the community.
If we want people to return and give back to their hometowns, we must make them feel like their hometown is where they belong in the first place. If people feel disconnected from where they were raised, why would they return to a place that created a feeling of isolation? Ending this isolation requires giving young people reasons to choose their hometowns. To help them make that choice, we need to show them this is a place worth belonging to.
We often struggle to lift up our community assets. We don’t often speak up about the good happening in our communities because “It’s what we’ve always done,” and it doesn’t feel special. Many young people feel like their hometowns have nothing to offer because we aren’t doing a good job of showing them all the support, opportunities, and resources available to them.
“This place has something special,” I wrote in my journal. It took me almost 20 years to realize this, and I had to intentionally work to get to this point. How are we going to get students to discover that their hometowns have something special if they don’t want to discover it in the first place? By lifting up the good and creating a sense of belonging that incentivizes community engagement and returning.
With a few more years until I complete my bachelor’s degree and with graduate school on the horizon, this is likely the last time I will be living in Nebraska City for a while. I will miss being home. I’ll miss recognizing everybody at the gas station. I’ll miss being greeted by name every time I go to the coffee shop. I’ll miss going for walks on the trails around Arbor Lodge. I’ll miss this hometown feeling. My hometown has made me feel like I belong. How can we make other young people feel the same?