Cara Cookson: Rural American Committed to a Rural Future

Last Updated: February 26, 2014

This article appeared in the February 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

Cara Cookson says she remembers sitting with a group of students talking about where they were from during her first week at Mount Holyoke College. “I felt proud of my small school,” she says. “I got something in my education that the other students didn’t get from their big suburban schools.”

Cara Cookson
Cara Cookson of Cabot, Vermont

Cookson was one of twenty graduates in the class of 2000 at The Cabot School, one of Vermont’s few remaining pre-K–12 rural public schools. “There’s something to be said for getting to be a three sport varsity athlete and be in the school play, to experience so many aspects of extracurricular life. I also got a terrific education — small classes, teachers who knew me when I was in elementary school. Every single child at Cabot is special. There’s a focus on each child and what that child needs to thrive. That’s how I ended up at Mount Holyoke. I was the first person in my family to go to college and we really had no idea how to think about the college search process. My teachers suggested I consider Mount Holyoke.”

Cookson is currently a staff attorney with the Federal Judiciary in Vermont and a former member of the State of Vermont Human Services Board. She’s glad to be back, close to family and community, after several years as a U.S. Senate staffer in Washington, D.C.

“Cabot is part of my heritage, my family tradition,” says Cookson. “The school is the center of the village of Cabot, physically and metaphorically.”

The school has also made the village central to its work. “Cabot was part of a movement, the Vermont Rural Partnership (VRP), to organize schools around the notion of asset development and place-based learning. It was a cadre of smaller schools that wanted to be innovators,” Cookson explains. As part of that work, a Vermont delegation — including Cookson who was in the ninth grade — attended a Rural Rendezvous. Those national gatherings, sponsored by the Rural Trust’s predecessor organization, brought together people from around the country who were interested in rural schools and communities

“That was a big deal in my social development,” says Cookson. “I was so blown away by the concept of rural being something worth investing in. As a young person you get a lot of pop culture messages that living in a rural place is less than living in the city, that rural is a place to leave. So even though I had always been proud of my place and my family, it was important to me to have the idea cemented that rural is important, that there’s this greater cultural value to it, value that is shared.”

At the Rendezvous, Cookson challenged adults to do more to include students and create opportunities through which students could speak for themselves. She was invited to help form a student leadership group and to work with others to establish a national infrastructure around rural education issues. She stayed active with that work and the VRP throughout high school, traveling to South Dakota and Nebraska and hosting rural students in Cabot.

“Having all those experiences helped me develop poise and confidence. It was a wonderful platform for me personally, for finding my voice as a leader,” she says.

Recently, Cookson has been involved with an effort to end pressure to consolidate rural schools, including a vote this past spring on the future of the high school in Cabot. (The community voted 322 to 149 to keep the school open). “The rationale for consolidation is that Vermont schools are too expensive,” she explains. “It’s all about efficiency. If money is the only value up for consideration, we should be running schools like prisons.” She adds that most of the consolidation pressures are aimed at schools with dwindling enrollment. “Those schools are losing students because their local economies are struggling. Why would you take away one of the last community resources in that situation?”

This concern about the future of rural communities was also a part of her decision to return to Vermont. “I have the long-range motivation to contribute to making Vermont a better place. Contrary to what popular culture might suggest rural communities are more than just quaint. They are at the root of American culture, economy, agriculture, environmentalism. So many of this country’s resources come from or exist in rural places, therefore, we have to preserve them — not in the sense of archiving them or treating them like Disney World, and not just because they are an important part of our history, but because they are our future.”


Read more from the February 2014 Rural Policy Matters.