Tech’s Rural Reimagined Grand Challenge wins national award

COOKEVILLE – Tennessee Tech’s Rural Reimagined Grand Challenge was named a Category Leader in the 2021 University Economic Development Association’s national Awards of Excellence. 

“This recognition lets us know we are headed in the right direction,” said Michael Aikens, director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Tech and co-chair of the grand challenge committee. “We can see the results of what we have done to help rural communities, which is the most important thing, but this was a rigorous review by peer and aspirational universities that validated our work.”

Rural Reimagined won the “Talent + Place” category, beating out three other finalists in the category: the University of Georgia, Georgia Southern University and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Projects and initiatives from across North America competed in UEDA’s six-month process, including application, peer review, online presentations and, ultimately, selection by attendees of the annual UEDA Summit as category leaders. 

Tech was the only Tennessee finalist in any of the competition’s six categories.

Rural Reimagined began in 2019, growing out of the university’s Tech Tomorrow strategic plan, which called for the university to embark on a grand challenge that would integrate experiential learning opportunities that would address a significant problem and contribute to impactful interdisciplinary solutions. 

The region immediately around the Cookeville campus includes numerous distressed and at-risk rural counties that face problems such as workforce instability, population loss, food insecurity, accessible medical and mental health care, drug addiction, poor infrastructure, access to STEM education, lack of diversity and broadband access. Accordingly, the vision of Rural Reimagined is to examine these issues and collaboratively develop and support the success of rural areas in a way that can be replicated throughout the state, country and the world. 

“This award is a testament to the power of community collaboration and the efforts to achieve the vision of Rural Reimagined,” Aikens said.

Since March 2019, Rural Reimagined has impacted 44 Tennessee counties, interacted with over 3,000 community members, faculty, staff and students, has created over 100 community partnerships, has accumulated 50,000 student service-learning/volunteer hours, and has activated over $4.2 million in rural-related grant funds. 

“When we first announced Rural Reimagined, I was energized by the thought of what we could do working together as a university to partner with rural communities to address the complex challenges they face,” said Tennessee Tech President Phil Oldham. “To see what the entire Tech community – students, faculty and staff – have done in such a short time with distressed and at-risk communities is inspiring, and to receive this national recognition is encouraging as we continue this important initiative.”

The category Tech won, Talent + Place, showcases projects that exemplify how putting the right people in the right environment will benefit the community and economy. These projects and initiatives connect people and location in ways that enrich discourse, promote civic participation, and otherwise enhance quality of place, according to UEDA.  

“Never before has economic engagement of higher education institutions been more critical to our economic redesign,” said Tim Hindes, UEDA Executive Director. “UEDA’s model of highlighting best practices in economic engagement continues to locate, highlight, and recognize those initiatives that best exemplify sustainable models that are making remarkable, positive impacts on regional economic ecosystems across North America.”

Established in 1976, the University Economic Development Association works to bring together higher education institutions, private sector businesses, non-profits, government organizations and community economic development stakeholders to create local and regional economic opportunity. 

To learn more about Rural Reimagined, visit

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