Apart. Not Alone
March 26, 2020 6:30 AM EDT

Amanda Courtois grew up in Weiser, Idaho, a town of around 5,000 people, and studies ecological biology at Eastern Oregon University. Scotty Johnson grew up in Portland, Ore., and studies community development with a minor in conflict resolution at Portland State University. But in 2018, they spent 10 days trying to get to know each other’s worlds.

“The urban and rural divide does exist,” Courtois tells TIME. “You think of somebody living in a city as, you know, someone other.”

Courtois and Johnson participated in the Urban-Rural Ambassadors Institute, which connects students from Portland State University and Eastern Oregon University in an effort to bridge the urban-rural divide. The program launched in 2018 and is now in its third year. Roughly 20 students participate every summer, spending five days in Portland and five days in more rural La Grande, Ore., as they learn about and reflect upon the major issues facing both communities.

The program exposes students to new environments: Courtois learned about gentrification; Johnson learned about efforts to revive the state’s salmon population. But Johnson says that “at the end of the day, people’s everyday life was pretty much the same. Worrying about paying rent. Making sure you got food on the table and clean clothes to wear.”

“Every good person in the world wants to leave behind a better world than they found,” Courtois adds. “And you just have to figure out how you are meant to do that, whether you’re in an urban setting or a rural setting.”

Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com.

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