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University of Missouri

Real-world Rural Work

MU Extension’s ExCEED program helps more than communities.

Renee Miller

The skills Renee Reed-Miller, a master’s candidate in rural sociology, is gaining through MU Extension’s Community Economic and Entrepreneurial Development program are strengthening her prospects for working in community development, either in the U.S. or internationally, after graduation. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Renee Reed-Miller is driven. It’s apparent in little ways, like how she maintains eye contact when she speaks, undistracted by her phone, coffee cup and passers-by. It becomes certain when you understand how she came to Mizzou and to MU Extension’s Community Economic and Entrepreneurial Development (ExCEED) program.

In 2007, Reed-Miller founded Vessels International, a community organization that promotes sustainable practices and leadership development in underserved international communities. She is pursuing a master’s degree in rural sociology and working as a graduate assistant with ExCEED to learn more about rural needs, economic development and leadership skills.

ExCEED was formed in 2005 to help rural communities develop their economies by identifying their unique attributes, strengthening the ties between and among businesses and government, and encouraging entrepreneurship. The range of clients is diverse, stretching from the historic towns along the Mississippi River to the breadbasket countryside near the Nebraska border. Reed-Miller is one of two graduate students currently working with the program.

“It gives us a chance to see where we fit in,” she says. Most people aren’t given that chance until they get hired as a community development specialist.”

Although future job prospects are unclear, assisting ExCEED Director Sharon Gulick in community coaching — helping towns map out the steps needed to reach a goal — has shown Reed-Miller how to do things with clients, not for them. Observing Gulick’s leadership skills — such as catering to her team’s strengths, for instance by having Reed-Miller write grant proposals, a strong suit of hers — has helped fashion her ideas for how she’d like to manage an office.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” she says.

Likewise, Mark Porth, MS ’13, found similar career benefits during his assistantship. With a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Auburn University and an interest in rural communities, Porth’s experience with ExCEED in rural economic revitalization led him to a job with MU Extension, first as a community arts specialist in Lexington, Missouri, and now as a housing and environmental design specialist for the West Central region of the state.

“I probably wouldn’t be in the position I am today if it hadn’t been for the ExCEED program,” he says.

Porth used his architecture background to help the town of Brookfield, Missouri, renovate its downtown park — a central component of the community — which was divided by a state highway. He learned that “the community leads the process, but I’m helping them work through it,” Porth says. “It’s not about yourself or your design but about the community getting what it wants, what its vision is, and helping it come to life.”

His work with ExCEED earned him the 2013 Student Recognition Award from the Community Development Society.

“As much as you’d hope you could learn in a classroom the ins-and-outs of working with a community, there’s nothing that can replace that real-world experience,” Porth says.