Experience Matters

Building community connections can sometimes be as simple as providing the right learning experiences

Opportunities for students to study closer to home and give back to the state of Colorado builds bridges within and between rural and urban communities. CSU Student Sara Bovaird, reflects on her opportunity to give back to the community of Sterling, Colorado by researching and documenting historically significant buildings.

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One student “studied away” building bridges with a rural, Colorado community


In this edition of Community Voices, we see how CSU student Sara Bovaird helped a community preserve significant buildings and history.

Building bridges within and between rural and urban communities can be a challenge, but if you ask CSU Student Sara Bovaird, the solution can sometimes be as simple as having the right learning experiences. 

Bovaird’s perspective on rural/urban connections were shaped in part by a CSU experiential learning program as part of the CSU Extension intern program. Under the direction of Maria Delgado, CSU assistant professor of Design & Merchandising, Bovaird researched and documented a series of architecturally significant buildings in rural Sterling, Colorado.  

“They have a history of losing some buildings to fires and urbanization and that sort of thing, and so we’re trying to preserve what we can by documenting them in 3-D,” Bovaird explained. Using advanced digital tools, Bovaird created three-dimensional renderings of a variety of structures, while also interviewing community members, unearthing old documents and collecting stories of the community’s history.  In the process, she said the project enabled her to connect with community members in ways she hadn’t encountered in other educational settings. 

“I had to travel to Sterling quite a bit. I was there, I was interacting with the community.  Every time I was wearing my CSU shirt, I was making it very clear where I was coming from.  And it really helped strengthen the connection people see between CSU and the community.” 

‘Study Away’ vs. ‘Study Abroad’ 

“We do something at CSU that we’re really proud of, and that’s referred to sometimes as ‘study away,” Michael Carolan, CSU Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research & Faculty Development, said. “That language is intentional, it’s a play upon study abroad, but as opposed to going overseas, we take students and we give them experiential learning opportunities and research opportunities within the state of Colorado.” 

Through these experiences, Carolan said students get to engage in research and refine their skills as scientists, as creative artists, as scholars, but then they’re also able to engage in real world problems and real-world problem-solving in ways that are meaningful to these members of the community. 

“The important knock-on effect from these programs, is that students experience first-hand what it’s like to live in these communities while also forming important relationships with community members,” Carolan said. 

Stephan Weiler, professor of economics at Colorado State University and co-director of the university’s Regional Economic Development Institute added that exposing students to diverse settings can be an important and intentional part of the learning process. 

“Experience oriented means things like going out to different places, experiencing agritourism, for instance, going out on a farm and finding out where your food comes from.  Those kinds of things matter,” Weiler said.  “When they finish their capstone classes, I mean, they shake their heads, saying ‘I thought I understood my state, but I realized now that I’ve still got some learning to do.’ I hope that that leads to a generation of people with exactly those kinds of questions.” 

More Than Just a Research Project 

Beyond simply collecting data, Bovaird said the project also was designed to engage the broader community, including a goal of sparking local high school student interest in architecture and historic preservation. 

“The overall goal of this project was not only to help the community, but also to help engage high school students in architecture and becoming more interested hopefully in Sterling’s history,” she said.   As part of that effort, CSU is working with teachers to develop curriculum offerings that enable students to virtually tour and learn about local historic buildings. 

“We’re really excited to see how this can benefit younger members of the community,” Bovaird said. 

One of the historic buildings Bovaird investigated was the Overland Trail Museum, built in 1936 as a project of the depression-era Works Project Administration.  From the start, museum representative Kay Brigham Price said Sarah showed genuine interest in the project, as well as appreciation for the Sterling community. 

“She was really interested in learning about the building and the history and that really impressed me,” Brigham Price said.  “It’s a really great feeling to get to work with a young adult – a student that’s really passionate and excited about her career path and where she is going.  It’s a great feeling to feel like we were maybe just a tiny little part of that and a part giving her a better understanding of the project she’s working on.” 

Building Bridges 

As a capstone to her internship, Bovaird shared her work with the entire Sterling community via a presentation at the CSU Northeast Regional Engagement Center. Although many of the attendees were people she had worked with on the project, even more community members turned out to learn about the project and the history of their town. 

“The summary meeting that Sarah held at the local center was really well attended,” Brigham Price said.  “I saw a lot of people in the community that I don’t think were actually connected with the project or with any of the buildings, but they were just interested. So it did impact the community as a whole, outside of just the people she spoke with or worked with.” 

Looking back on the experience, Bovaird says her internship helped her better appreciate the role CSU can play in building bridges within and among diverse communities. 

“While I was doing the internship, I don’t think I realized the significance of what I was doing,” she said. “Like I knew it was important and I wanted to help as much as possible and get as much research as I could and talk to as many community members as I possibly could. But all of the work CSU is doing is something that helps bring the community together, rather than create deeper divides.” 

Brigham Price shared similar feeling from the community’s perspective. “There most definitely is a bridge,” she said.  “I feel like probably the biggest thing that pops into my head is that we feel recognized. I do feel like people in rural areas sometimes feel a little bit forgotten and maybe unheard and a project like this not only gives us an opportunity to show that we’re proud of our community, we love our community so we kind of get to show it off.  But it also does help us feel connected to a larger place.” 

How You Can Get Involved

  • Connect with CSU to learn more about CSU around the state and opportunities to work together. 

Build Bridges: Connect with your Community

  • CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation aims to improve the way our community is able to talk through complex issues so that we can arrive at better decisions. Learn more about their events and community projects.