How I Used My Fulbright Experience to Foster Talent Retention in My Rural Hometown

By Mia Pohlman


A conversation I had with Cenet executive director Robyn Walker in 2018 profoundly impacted my life.


Let me tell you the story: I had been back in the U.S. for two and a half years since living in Athens, Greece, as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and had been living back in my hometown in Southeast Missouri for nearly a year. I wasn’t sure yet if I wanted to stay long-term. I missed living abroad and the excitement of the unknown it brought with it; I was having a difficult time adjusting back to what I perceived as the known of the place I had grown up in.


While interviewing Robyn for a story about borders that I was writing for an issue of flourish, the women’s magazine I’m the editor of, she told me she hoped through Cenet’s outbound programs, people from this area are able to explore the world, and that they would then bring that knowledge back to our community to share their global perspectives with others in their work and personal lives. She told me she was happy I was back, that she was happy I was choosing to live here.


Maybe it seemed like a throwaway comment to her. But as a 25-year-old searching for my place in the world and wondering how I could contribute uniquely to a community in a way that made a difference for others, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.


So, I gradually decided to stay. And to create opportunities for others that could help them find the ways they were needed uniquely in this community and region, too.


In March 2023, I was one of 30 people selected to attend the Rural Engagement in Global Affairs Seminar in Birmingham, Ala., sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. At this conference, I led a panel about the Media Landscape in Rural Affairs, where I discussed the work I do with Here., the literary magazine program I founded for high school students in Southeast Missouri.


Through a workshop program with local professional writers and artists, as well as a yearly publication that features high school students’ writing and artwork, the goal of the literary magazine program is to provide rural students throughout Southeast Missouri — a region of the country far from the publishing and art hubs of New York, Chicago and L.A. — with the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to pursue careers in writing and the arts after high school. Through doing so, we hope to create a community of artists and writers that promotes creative talent development and retention in this region.


This project is a direct result of my time spent living in Greece. When I was there from 2014 to 2015, I saw how many of the villages and islands were losing their young people to the metropolitan city of Athens due to lack of employment in rural places; beyond that, Greece as a country was losing many of its young people to other countries within Europe and North America, due to many of them seeking higher education abroad.


I also see how that has happened in this Southeast Missouri region where I am from. For too long, the narrative has been that people from small towns who have pursued higher education should “escape” these places for larger cities with more employment opportunities. Writers and artists are creative problem solvers, critical thinkers and beauty creators, who through their craft, can foster understanding, innovation and reconciliation; losing these people and their skills to larger places does not serve a region or its people well.


Through equipping students with the knowledge of opportunities in the arts that are right here in this area and giving them the tools to know how to publish their writing or get their artwork in a gallery, we hope to show them they are wanted and needed as writers and artists in this region, too, and that there are many opportunities for them as creatives here; they can make a living at it. Whether they stay in this area or go away for college, we hope they decide to return here, to help create this region of Missouri into all we hope it can be.


I am grateful Cenet has partnered with us as a sponsor of this program, and that they share a similar vision of creating opportunities for people in Southeast Missouri to go abroad and bring those experiences back here, to share their knowledge, experiences and global mindedness with others in this region. It helps us to tell other young people, you are wanted and needed. We’re happy you’re here.

Cenet strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration.