Researchers examine challenges facing youth in transitional societies

Stephanie Koons
April 18, 2021

College of Education researchers, bolstered by support from Penn State Global Programs, have collaborated with an international group of scholars and academics to study the challenges and contexts facing youth from rural communities in countries with legacies of socialism undergoing social, political and economic transition.

Kai Schafft

Kai Schafft, director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities and professor of education and rural sociology in the Department of Education Policy Studies.

IMAGE: Steve Tressler

“One of the challenges with these transitions in general is how they create new kinds of spatial inequalities between urban and rural places,” said Kai Schafft, director of the Center on Rural Education and Communities and professor of education and rural sociology in the Department of Education Policy Studies (EPS). “What does this mean for young people, and especially in the context of divergent opportunity structures and rural depopulation?”

The research project took root several years ago shortly after Schafft returned from Central European University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Budapest, Hungary, when he was a visiting Fulbright fellow. Returning to Penn State, he learned about an institutional arrangement between Penn State and the University of Split in Croatia.

With funding for a pilot project from Penn State Global Programs, Schafft and Sanja Stanic, professor of sociology at the University of Split, surveyed about 500 high school students in three different rural spaces in Central Croatia. Eventually, the project was expanded into a book deal, and the co-editors identified contributors who wrote chapters on a range of national contexts including Serbia, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Russia and Vietnam.

“During the work on the project, we expanded our collaboration to include colleagues from universities from other countries,” said Stanic. “In this way, we have created a network of scientists who share research interests and who, with their contributions, have significantly contributed to the issues discussed in our book, which is already being praised in Croatia.”

Schafft’s co-editors on the book, “Rural Youth at the Crossroads: Transitional Societies in Central Europe and Beyond," are Stanic; Renata Horvatek, international internships and research abroad adviser for Penn State Global Programs, who earned a doctorate in education theory and policy with a dual title in comparative and international education from the College of Education in 2017; and Annie Maselli, a doctoral candidate in EPS.

“Youth face many uncertainties among these ‘crossroads’ as they journey toward adulthood, encountering the effects of political transitions, COVID-19, climate change, the rise of populism and right-wing nationalism,” said Maselli.

“While all of these factors influence youth transitions, they’re not felt equally across the rural-urban continuum — with compounding costs for rural people, schools and their communities.”

Working on the project brought Horvatek back to his roots. Having originally come to Penn State from Croatia in 2010 on a Humphrey Fellowship, she said the book didn’t provide much evidence that conditions in rural areas had substantially improved in the past decade.

She referred to a “bipolar development of Croatia” in which urban areas are prospering economically while the “hinterlands are left behind.” She said hundreds of schools have been under threat of closure in rural areas in recent years, as they failed to enroll new students, leading to community disintegration.

“I definitely hope that our policy-makers in education are really starting to think about what is the role of rural schools in not only development of rural areas in Croatia but Croatia in general,” Horvatek said.

The researchers said they are energized by the opportunities that have resulted from the book. In February, Schafft and Maselli were asked by one of the book’s Russian contributors to present their work at an invited plenary presentation at a conference held at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. Schafft is in talks about continuing this line of research in Romania and would like to continue the collaboration with the University of Split.

“It was an incredible privilege for us to be exposed to these scholars and these issues in different parts of the world,” said Schafft. “Hopefully, this is just the beginning of these collaborations.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 21, 2021