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UGA students explore needs of rural Georgia communities through PROPEL program

UGA students are learning about economic drivers in rural Georgia — and why they matter to the state as a whole — as scholars in PROPEL, a unique program led by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. PROPEL (Planning Rural Opportunities for Prosperity and Economic Leadership) provides rural communities with resources to create systems needed to support their own economic and workforce development strategies.

Max White aspires to a management career in rural economic development and is gaining hands-on experience through the PROPEL Rural Scholars program. A third-year atmospheric sciences and economics major whose family goes back generations in Grady County, White recognized the opportunities PROPEL could provide rural communities and how he could be a part of it. 

“It made me wonder what I can do to improve conditions in my hometown,” he said.

Launched last fall with a generous $250,000 gift from the University of Georgia Foundation and a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the PROPEL Rural Scholars program is part of an overarching effort to help low-income rural cities and counties become more self-sufficient and prosperous.

“As a land-grant institution, the University of Georgia is committed to developing the next generation of leaders and to creating economic opportunities for our home state,” said UGA President Jere W. Morehead. “We are grateful for the generous financial support we have received for the PROPEL Rural Scholars program to help us achieve both of these goals.” 

“It made me wonder what I can do to improve conditions in my hometown.”

Max White, on participating in the PROPEL Rural Scholar program

Neal J. Quirk, chair of the UGA Foundation Board of Trustees, said the group was honored to support the university’s public service and outreach mission by investing in the program.   

“The success of Georgia’s rural communities is critical to the prosperity of the entire state. We saw that giving today’s UGA students the chance to engage with rural community leaders was a powerful opportunity that we wanted to strongly support as a priority of the board,” he said.

It’s also a way to highlight more of what the state has to offer.

“The purpose of the PROPEL Rural Scholars program is to build future leaders in rural Georgia,” said Vinson Institute faculty member Greg Wilson, who directs the program. “Even if their interests vary — from banking to agribusiness to education — these students are gaining an understanding of specific issues and how they can give back,” he said.

PROPEL Rural Scholar Alyssa Ashurst is ready to dive in. A second-year agribusiness major, she appreciates the ripple effect of a healthy rural Georgia. 

“Rural communities grow food for the state and around the globe. It’s important to give back and help those communities so they can flourish and develop in self-directed ways. Sometimes they just need a little help getting there,” Ashurst said. 

student looks at pig
Shreyas Kumar, a second-year kinesiology major from Alpharetta, communes with a pig during a tour of Appling County as part of the PROPEL Rural Scholars program.

In the fall, student scholars spent time in Appling County to get a feel for the community and its needs. The field trip included tours of a nuclear power plant, agricultural facilities and small businesses. 

In downtown Baxley, students helped fill new planters along the main corridor as a service project that’s part of a beautification effort by the Downtown Development Authority to get the “heart of our community pumping again,” said Keri Orvin, city manager. She’s hoping to bring more businesses downtown to help grow the tax base, preserve historic buildings and create new destinations for dining and shopping. 

With a recently received Rural Zone designation — which gives tax credits for potential development of historical structures — the city is poised for such growth; it just needs help creating a framework for what that looks like.  

To that end, PROPEL Rural Scholars will identify best practices and find ordinances from similar communities under the guidance of UGA faculty and staff. 

Orvin welcomes the additional brain power and assistance.

“We just don’t have the resources to do some of the research necessary regarding ordinances and infrastructure. We’re excited to have UGA students navigate some of the areas where we need help,” she said. 

For students like Avery Jainniney, a second-year international affairs and political science major, seeing the people and places of Appling County brings the project to life.

“It was great to be out in the community — it makes me more passionate about the work we’re doing. There’s a lot to be done, but seeing the energy and commitment of people who live there is motivating,” she said.UGA students who are interested in becoming a PROPEL Rural Scholar for the 2023-2024 academic year can apply online through April 14 at

students standing
PROPEL Rural Scholars program participants visit the Hatch Nuclear Power Plant in Baxley. From left, Shraddha Bandlamudi, Shreyas Kumar, Chase Reece, Alyssa Ashurst, Max White, Avery Jainniney, Hannah Willerson, and Linet Namuli. Not pictured: Reilly Grady.

2022-23 PROPEL Rural Scholars:

Alyssa Ashurst
Second-year agribusiness major
Ellijay, GA

Shraddha Bandlamudi
First-year finance and international business major
Johns Creek, GA

Reilly Grady
Second-year agribusiness major and environmental law minor
Dalton, GA

Avery Jainniney
Second-year international affairs and political science major
Appling, GA

Shreyas Kumar
Second-year kinesiology major
Alpharetta, GA

Linet Namuli
Third-year economics major
Kampala, Uganda

Chase Reece
Third-year health promotion major and Double Dawg MPH in health policy
Hiawassee, GA

Max White
Third-year atmospheric science and economics major
Cairo, GA

Hannah Willerson
Fourth-year international affairs and political science major
Chickamauga, GA

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Margaret Blanchard
Public relations coordinator
© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602