From virtual to rural: O’Neill Online students develop real-life solutions with Indiana communities


Thanks to a week-long residency program, online master’s students at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs are being given the opportunity to not only experience the IU Bloomington campus but, with help from the IU Center for Rural Engagement, also make an impact in the region.

Known as O’Neill Online Week, the program brings together interested students each summer. For one week on the Bloomington campus, students are exposed to a combination networking event, credit-bearing course, and the opportunity to address a real, public issue in the region.

“Online students are given a chance to experience first-hand what it’s like to be a Bloomington student while also working with a group to improve the lives of those in southern Indiana,” said Trent Engbers who leads the residency program.

Engbers speaks from personal experience, having received his Ph.D. from the O’Neill School. Engbers currently teaches full-time at the University of Southern Indiana and part-time at O’Neill.

It’s invaluable to be able to apply such knowledge in a real situation with a client who will benefit from their participation.

Rachel Yen, MPA student
“The in-person experience embellishes an already great experience,” said Rachel Yen, an online MPA student who participated in the 2021 residency program. “It’s invaluable to be able to apply such knowledge in a real situation with a client who will benefit from their participation.”

Since 2018, the program has worked with the Center for Rural Engagement’s Sustaining Hoosier Communities (SHC) project. SHC partners with rural communities to connect IU students and faculty with local residents to address local issues.

In 2018, the students worked with service providers in Greene County to address and reduce opioid use. In 2019, they collaborated with HandUp OC, a nonprofit in Orange County, to improve quality of life for the county’s residents.

Following a cancelation in 2020, the program restarted in 2021. Students connected with the Town of Bloomfield to address a desire for enhanced recreation and accessibility by proposing a redesign of the Bloomfield Town Park and updates to the town’s master plan for parks and recreation.

Students first met with the community to learn more about their needs and begin strategizing. From there, they delegated duties within their teams. Then they collaborated with O’Neill faculty to develop solutions.

“I try not to manage the groups, but rather to give them the tools and some space to develop work habits that make sense for them and their team,” said Engbers.

After the residency week, they have one week to finalize a professional proposal that meets the client’s needs.

“There’s no sidestepping the fact that it’s a lot to get done in one week,” said Yen, whose duties were focused on the presentation, graphics, and the broader strategy of the proposal. “The work for this project was significant but incredibly rewarding.”
The IU Center for Rural Engagement improves the lives of Hoosiers through collaborative initiatives that discover and deploy scalable and flexible solutions to common challenges facing rural communities. Working in full-spectrum community innovation through research, community-engaged teaching and student service, the center builds vision, harnesses assets and cultivates sustainable leadership structures within the communities with which it engages to ensure long-term success.