Southwest Central Indiana—known as the Indiana Uplands—offers vibrant grounds to grow new opportunities for professionals who seek collaborative and engaged communities. Lauren Travis, a transplant from the state of Washington, discovered supportive and innovative Indiana communities that inspired her to stay after she finished her master’s degree at Indiana University.
“I had actually never been to the Midwest before coming to visit IU, so I didn’t know what to expect,” said Lauren, recounting her journey to Indiana to pursue a master of public affairs degree in policy analysis and sustainable development from the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
While gaining work experience through an externship program made possible by the McKinney Family Foundation, Lauren established connections beyond campus. It was her first summer in Indiana, and she was able to envision what professional life would be like in the Hoosier state.
“That gave me the opportunity to make a lot more community contacts,” she said.
In the last semester of her master’s program, Lauren participated in the first year of Sustaining Hoosier Communities. Launched with support from a Lilly Endowment Inc. grant, SHC is a Center for Rural Engagement initiative that engages course-based service encompassed in IU Corps with a selected community in Indiana. With her class, Lauren helped the City of Bedford create a Complete Streets proposal to increase the walkability and accessibility of streets and sidewalks. Through a community meeting process, the class learned what was most important to residents of all ages.
“When we had our community meetings, we heard the perspective of elementary students who said they didn’t feel like it was safe to bike to school and others who said they wanted to be able to walk to church.”
The class prepared case study materials, visited sites, and held a town hall meeting to learn more about needs and concerns related to roadways in the city.
“As a class, it was a very valuable experience to come in to meetings with the community and say, ‘Here’s some research we’ve done on this topic, but you are the local experts,’” Lauren recalled.
The class created a set of recommendations, including solutions to perceived barriers, public awareness strategies and training to support Complete Streets policy adoption. In April, the city council adopted the policy.
“I saw the immediate progress the Sustaining Hoosier Communities projects were making,” Lauren said. Watching the results of her work unfold, she began to imagine continuing her efforts in the Indiana Uplands.
“That was the first time I had worked on a project at the municipal scale,” she said. “When starting at IU, I thought I would do something at the state or federal level, but then I got really interested in the possibility of working at the municipal and regional level.”
Lauren knew she wanted to work somewhere that was mission-oriented. She started to explore Regional Opportunity Initiatives, Inc., a nonprofit organization that is implementing an education and workforce plan and a regional opportunity fund for quality-of-place investments in the Indiana Uplands. She now serves as a project manager, where she continues her collaboration with communities to strengthen the region.
“I am continually impressed by the strength of the civic organizations here,” Lauren said. “People here want to make a positive impact.”
Though the Indiana Uplands were unknown to Lauren before moving for her master’s program, the region has become a welcoming home to her.
“I didn’t expect to stay here after graduation because I came from so far away, but I had cultivated community ties in the meantime and started to see a role that I might play working within the community.”
The Center for Rural Engagement connects the broad resources of IU Bloomington and its region through collaborative initiatives. The goal of the center is to improve the lives of Hoosiers through its work with partners to discover and deploy scalable and flexible solutions to common challenges facing rural communities. The center will connect with communities to build upon their many opportunities and assets, such as the natural beauty of the region; their family-friendly culture; and their many economic resources.