Growing up in Spooner, Wisconsin, allowed graduating senior Kaylee Thornley to experience firsthand the social and economic struggles small communities face today.

Understanding that rural communities struggle to keep wealth in the region, Thornley knew she wanted to study methods that would allow her to influence policy and help to remedy these issues.

Thornley found the answer at Northland College, declaring her major in sustainable community development and by participating in research opportunities with the College’s Center for Rural Communities.

Over the past four years, Thornley has delved into research with the Center for Rural Communities, and was recently awarded first place in the Midwest Sociological Society’s student paper competition for a paper she wrote on social capital and community attachment in the Chequamegon Bay.

“Kaylee is one of the strongest, most committed students I have ever taught and worked with. She is exceptional inside and outside of the classroom,” said Brandon Hofstedt, associate professor of sustainable community development and faculty director of the Center for Rural Communities.

Northland College student poster session

Senior Kaylee Thornley presented her research on understanding how social ties, trust, and reciprocity relate to social capital and community attachment in rural communities.

Thornley said her passion lies in strengthening communities. For her senior capstone, Thornley collected data from her hometown to look at ways to improve economic development in Spooner.

“I looked at what they have been doing to understand the history and context. I then conducted a mail survey asking people about different things related to economic development and social capital to inform some ideas to make economic development more sustainable in Spooner,” Thornley explained.

She concluded that Spooner should consider shifting away from “smoke-stack chasing and tourism to community wealth building,” which could help keep money in the region.

“I also found that they need to change the narrative around development. Right now, the narrative is ‘the past was better, we need to take what we can get.’ When it should be more optimistic and look at building up the community’s current strengths,” Thornley concluded.

This summer, Thornley will be wrapping up projects with the Center for Rural Communities and applying for jobs in the Midwest with a nonprofit agencies and small municipalities.

Eventually, she would like to get her PhD in sociology with the ultimate goal of becoming a college professor someday. “The research experience is going to give me a lot of help in applying for grad schools,” Thornley said. “That’s exactly what those programs are looking for.”

Hofstedt noted that in addition to being and “amazing student and excelling academically,” Thornley has a kind demeanor and thoughtfulness that will help her to shine in all of her endeavors. “We will miss her after she leaves Northland, but look forward to seeing what her future holds… I’m convinced she will do many wonderful things.”

Amber Mullen ’12, a graduate of Northland College and a freelance journalist, is the author of this article.


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