A young person living in Brisbane could tell you the latest menu change at their suburban coffee shop but not where any of the food on it came from, says the woman behind a new rural immersion program.
When Melissa Smith and her family took a holiday in western Queensland a few years ago, she was struck with the need for action to arrest rural population drift and promote rural renewal.
“In Australia, there is an established path from country to city, where country children often attend boarding schools in their secondary years, visit on holidays or attend university and pursue a career,” she said. “Less commonly do city people travel in the opposite direction.”
Believing that it all had to start with young people, especially those preparing to make career choices, Melissa went home and planned a youth engagement program she hoped would enable senior secondary students from urban areas to experience the career and lifestyle opportunities available in rural communities.
“Many schools offer holiday programs involving travel to, and volunteer work in, foreign countries.
“This program offers an appealing reverse option, countering the prevailing misconception that many rural communities have no future and are devoid of opportunity, and encouraging a deeper understanding of rural life and its importance to Australia.”
It all came to fruition last week in Longreach when four students from Dakabin State High School spent a week soaking up knowledge of a range of work experience options, from physiotherapy and journalism to being a stock agent or running a property.
Although rain forced a number of changes to the program, they were still able to experience station life with a visit to Strathmore, discover what tourism offers the west with visits to attractions at Winton and Longreach, and interact with locals on a number of levels.
“I don’t want to take away from the work experience programs with an agricultural focus that are available – TASTE at the Longreach Pastoral College, or the Rabobank Farm Experience – but this is broader than that,” Melissa said.
“I’m aiming to demonstrate to students the opportunities, advantages and attractions of living in, and visiting, rural communities.
“Students who may not be as interested in an agribusiness or agricultural career also got a chance to see what some 'non-ag' work is like.”
“I really see this as win-win,” she said. “They were spending money while they were in town, and while they might not want to pursue a career out there, they might now understand calls for funding for rural issues.
“For instance, they heard a lot about wild dogs while they were there; the Longreach council CEO challenged them to keep track of the issue when they got back to the city.”
She targeted upper secondary students, knowing they would be exploring career options, saying she wanted to encourage them to think twice when choosing education choices, planting a rural seed.
“Everywhere they went, the message they got was, take whatever opportunities come your way.”
Melissa said the reaction from the four Year 11 and 12 students had been positive enough for her to forge ahead with a fully-fledged program to be offered to a number of Brisbane secondary schools next year, providing she could enlist corporate partners.
She has set up a not-for-profit company, Rural Immersion Ltd, largely out of her own pocket, so that students need pay only a nominal amount, and received a $500 mayoral donation from the Longreach Regional Council.
“Students wouldn’t have been able to come if they’d had to fund it all fully,” she said. “I’m keen for corporate partnerships now – it will be a big determinant in whether I can make it happen properly.”
Future plans could include families of participating students being encouraged to visit the host communities so they too develop that deeper understanding, and participation by students in community service initiatives.
For the next year or two, Melissa plans on keeping things simple by only running the program in Longreach, expanding it to other centres such as Emerald, Stanthorpe’s wine industry, or Charleville.
“It will have to have the support of the local communities, because they are integral to its success,” she said.