New NMU fellowship promotes economic development in the U.P.The goal is retain talent and help communities

Communities across the Upper Peninsula will soon have a helping hand in pursuing and bringing to fruition important economic development, housing, and placemaking projects.

Under the newly created Rural Leadership Fellowship Program at Northern Michigan University, at least three university-level students will be selected for “immersive project-based learning,” while supporting important economic and community development projects in the U.P. 

Believed to be the first-of-its-kind fellowship in Michigan, the program is a public-private partnership between Northern Michigan University and InvestUP, a nonprofit economic development organization aimed at driving prosperity in the U.P. 

At least three fellowships will be awarded through a competitive selection process. The fellowships are paid and scholarship-supported applied learning experiences for students interested in rural economic development and public sector careers. The first fellowships will begin in January.

Marty Fittante“I am excited to see the nature of the programs and projects that we’ll get through (request for proposals),” says Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP., which is funded by major employers in the Upper Peninsula. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see if we didn’t see proposals around capacity building for housing, land banks, and city projects. A lot of communities are short-staffed and don’t have the capacity to get the necessary work that needs to be done.”

Among the strategies for the fellowship program is to help students grow professional networks and advance opportunities in important public-serving roles in the U.P. and Michigan. The hope is fellows will find jobs in economic development or local government in the U.P., helping the peninsula retain young professional talent.

“As the Upper Peninsula’s rural-serving comprehensive institution, a hallmark of Northern’s mission is supporting student access and career access in tandem with partnerships that advance regional prosperity,” says David Nyberg, executive director of Business Engagement and Economic Development at NMU. 

As underscored in NMU’s “Rural Roots” focus area, the university’s role as a rural-serving institution is critical to advancing the U.P.'s economy, including the acquired skills and experiences students and alumni contribute as professionals, volunteers and leaders in their communities. The fellowship program will achieve several strategies designed to “serve rural communities by providing … economic models, workforce talent, and continuing education opportunities that specifically support rural communities.” 

“A core objective of this program is to provide unique work-based learning experiences for students interested in economic development or public service careers, while also supporting Upper Peninsula communities with the capacity they need to succeed on important economic development initiatives,” Nyberg says.

Supporting Upper Peninsula communities with experienced or additional staffing to handle the necessary paperwork and applications needed to secure state and other funding for various projects is among the strategies. 

“These students could be used to get the necessary work done to prepare and make applications, which helps activate and leverage state investment,” Fittante says.

“We’re looking at meaningful and substantive work,” he adds. “We’re not going to be asking students to make and get proverbial coffee. These projects will offer challenges intellectually and substantively. We want these fellowships to be meaningful for students and open their eyes to the community and keep them here.”

Lois Ellis, executive director of the Dickinson Area Economic Development Alliance, says having fellows available to assist with special projects will help address capacity constraints evident in Dickinson County and other communities. Project possibilities, she says, include leading a community planning revision, a public survey process or even putting together a housing plan for a specific site or sites of priority to the community.

 “The program will allow for a full variety of projects as long as the project is a priority to the local community and can provide the student with meaningful, real-life experience,” she says.

“The Rural Leadership Fellowship Program is a great way for students to get an in-depth look into possible public sector career paths. It’s encouraging to see this program offered at a time when most communities are running at low staffing levels with limited capacity for special project needs,” she says. “The program provides the best type of experience a student can gain, which is interacting with real-life situations. I’m hopeful that the program will help advance important goals of the region’s rural communities while educating these students about public sector processes and careers.”

Having access to a Fellow could allow organizations such as the Lake Superior Community Partnership to "work on a project that might otherwise remain on the wish list," says Christopher Germain, CEO of the economic development organization in Marquette County.

"When I worked at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the Community Fellowship program we launched in partnership with the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan was a real game-changer for communities," he says. "Some of them still rave about it years after their participation ended."

Capacity really, he notes, "is the great boulder around so many organizations’ necks. Local government and nonprofits have felt it for years; the talent shortage that we’re all experiencing now isn’t new to public and nonprofit sectors."

Fellows will be mentored by an advisory committee of experienced leaders in planning and executing a project in the U.P. that has been identified as a community economic development priority. The advisory committee consists of a host of professionals with successful careers in economic development and public policy and ties to the Upper Peninsula or Northern Michigan University.

The hope is that fellows will build good relationships with committee members and reach out to them when there are issues or concerns with projects, and also provide connections and steps to pursuing economic development and other jobs in the U.P. 

The fellowship program is funded by a rural capacity-building investment by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and NMU’s SISU Institute’s Innovation Fund. The fellowship program evolved from conversations between Nyberg and Steve Arwood, former president and CEO of the MEDC, about the missed opportunities many communities experience for grants, funding and economic projects because of a lack of staffing or expertise in pursuing money or new proposals. NMU’s “rural-serving mission,” its wealth of expertise among staff and graduates, and its openness to new ideas and academic programs, opened the door for the fellowship. 

Currently, the fellowship program will run as a two-year pilot but with an eye on extending the program as donor-funded, encouraging donors to make an impact on rural communities. The first cohort of fellows begins on January 16, 2024; a public announcement about the recipients and community projects will follow. 

“Across both peninsulas, Team Michigan is dedicated to making sure we provide opportunities and resources to encourage people of all backgrounds to be the change they wish to see in their communities, which is why we’re so grateful for our partnership with NMU and InvestUP to help bring this impactful program to life in the Upper Peninsula,” Matt McCauley, senior president of Regional Prosperity at MEDC, said in a press release about the program. 

“Through partnerships and opportunities like the Rural Leadership Fellowship Program, we’re making it clear that anyone and everyone is welcome to Make it in Michigan,” he added. 

Students are encouraged to apply now through November 30. The program is focused on graduate students enrolled in NMU’s Master of Public Administration and Master of Business Administration programs, but undergraduate students are eligible to apply and may be selected on a case-by-case basis. 

Select students will receive 100 percent tuition and fee scholarships as part of their financial aid package for the duration of their fellowship, which includes the 2024 winter, summer and fall semesters. Fellows will also receive a stipend of up to $15,000 to assist with living expenses.

To apply for a fellowship, students should go to:  Rural Leadership Fellowship Program. Upper Peninsula communities interested in participating in the program are encouraged to submit an Expression of Interest
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