Pitt Magazine

What if … we could remove roadblocks for rural students?

Means leans on a railing in a park, surrounded by fall leaves
Darris Means recently became the University's executive director for rural and community-based education. Photo by Aimee Obidzinski/Pitt Photography

When he was 13 years old, Darris Means moved into his grandparents’ home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Located 10 minutes from the city and within the perimeter of a school district 11,000 students strong, the area was decidedly suburban. Still, reminders of his grandparents’ rural roots were all around: pigs and chickens, a goat and a garden, family dinners and tight-knit neighbors.

So, when Means began a PhD program in North Carolina in 2010 and joined a study examining college pathways for rural Black youth, he instantly recognized his grandparents in the stories of the students he surveyed.

They talked of limited opportunities and deep-seated racism. Those who did manage to get to college were often the first in their families to do so and found their paths littered with questions and roadblocks.

But they also spoke of strong community support, the ability to overcome challenges and a desire to give back. That dichotomy resonated with Means, who is today an associate professor in Pitt’s School of Education.

“There are critical structural issues that we need to pay attention to when we talk about rurality, but at the same time, we can never forget the humanity and the assets and resources that people from rural communities bring with them,” Means says.

That perspective has been the guiding force for his decade of research on education in the country’s rural areas. Instead of focusing solely on the challenges facing rural Black youth — and there are many, from racism and insufficient internet access to school funding and outdated educational policies — he looks for ways to build upon the existing resources and networks to find solutions. For example, many rural districts in Georgia offer dual enrollment programs, introducing first-generation students to the college experience and helping defray costs by allowing them to attend classes and earn college credits before graduating high school.

In 2020, Means brought his strengths-based philosophy to Pitt, where he continues to study college access and STEM degree opportunities for rural Black students. Since his arrival, he’s been selected as a policy fellow of the Rockefeller Institute of Government (a public policy think tank), asked to join the Rural Education Association’s executive committee and named an emerging scholar by the editors of Diverse: Issues in Education. But his most important title, he says, is one just recently conferred upon him: Pitt’s executive director for rural and community-based education.

“I believe we have an obligation as a university to acknowledge and be responsive to rural communities,” he says.

In December, Means convened a network of stakeholders across Pitt’s campuses who are interested in supporting and responding to rural issues in the region, including health and well-being, educational access and opportunities, and community development. He’s also working with students who hail from rural areas to gain a deeper understanding of their educational pathways and challenges, a practice he has maintained since his PhD days.

“We have a lot to learn from people who have expertise because of a lived experience,” Means says. “I collaborate with students as co-researchers to investigate issues that are impacting their lives. And every time I do, I learn so much. And I leave with a sense of being very hopeful for the possibilities.”