Manhani Mattos advises community development students | Nebraska today
In every business, there are people behind the scenes who are rarely recognized by the general public. When it comes to rural Nebraska prosperity and community development, Daniela Manhani Mattos, assistant professor and graduate thesis advisor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, is one such person.
Though she spends little time in the field these days, teaching agricultural economics and advising graduate students, Manhani Mattos is impacting the study of rural Nebraska communities by training extension professionals and future leaders.
“I am the usual thesis director. The students write a proposal and I review them,” she said. “But when I look at their proposals, I ask (them), ‘How is this going to help the communities?'”
Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, Manhani Mattos has dedicated his educational career not only to agriculture, but specifically to helping individuals in rural communities.
While earning her master’s degree at the University of São Paulo, she worked with poor farmers who received small plots of land through a federal grant program, “teaching them entrepreneurial skills”, she said. . “Most of them had no education, so we set up a program and taught them the basics of economics.”
His doctoral program in community development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign showed his rural life in America. For two years, she lived in a town of 1,000 people, working with locals to overcome the economic and agricultural challenges that rural communities often face. This is where Manhani Mattos found a home away from home.
“I went to church, to basketball games, to clubs and community organizations, to weddings, to birthday parties,” she said. “I learned to respect more and really admire the strength of the residents.”
Contact with those whose lives differed from hers paved the way for her move to Canada, where she worked for a non-profit organization that helped refugees find housing and employment and settle in their new life.
When Manhani Mattos joined the university in 2013, she had a passion for mentoring her students and the experience to help them translate the theories learned in the classroom into real-life applications in the field.
It was what Jamie Bright, whose thesis focused on why a particular rural community in Nebraska was struggling and who completed his Masters of Applied Science in 2021, needed.
Manhani Mattos was instrumental in helping Bright extract meaning from piles of research papers. Bright had gathered information from interviews, focus groups, old directories, newspapers, and even postcards from a Smithsonian exhibit on rural communities. But she struggled with the “Now what?” of his discoveries.
“Daniela said that in our research and in community building, we often don’t find anything groundbreaking,” Bright said. “But we can share it with communities in hopes that they can take this and make positive changes.”
Sometimes Manhani Mattos’ advice deals with paperwork, and other times it dives into the research itself, according to Taylor Hart, who in 2020 earned a master’s degree in community development.
“What Daniela is really good at is she can see where questions might arise (in your research) and where your gaps are,” Hart said. “Going through these and filling them with her has been really beneficial.”
Hart’s thesis focused on the shopping habits of Wahoo residents, but when covid-19 has closed store retail, its research has been halted. So Hart turned to her adviser.
“We were able to work collaboratively on it, because she has so much experience in what interests me — basically, working with small towns and small businesses,” Hart said.
After long discussions of other angles of the subject, Hart turned to online shopping experiences in rural communities. From web shopping to curbside pickup, Hart tailored his research questions “to see how those differences would or would not be during a pandemic. The (retailers) were really innovative.
Advising students on how to adjust to “a new normal” was nothing new for Manhani Mattos. When Tayler Wickham, also a 2020 community development graduate, proposed a project to increase volunteer participation in 4-H programming in Douglas and Sarpy counties, it was anything but traditional.
“My thesis wasn’t really a thesis. It was more like a project,” Wickham said. “For a foul, I’m very independent, but I realized I needed more guidance, and so I really leaned on Daniela to kind of show me what the project should be, rather than what than I thought it must be. She was very kind in that regard.
Although each of these students successfully defended their thesis, the influence of Manhani Mattos still impacts their careers today. Bright works in community development as an extension educator for Rural Prosperity Nebraska in Sidney, while Wickham works in 4-H youth development as an extension educator in Washington County. Hart has closely followed in the footsteps of Manhani Mattos and is an Academic Advisor to the College of Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.
It is the ongoing influence that Manhani Mattos has on individuals in rural communities across the country.
“I love the opportunity I have to help students who are making a difference where they live,” said Manhani Mattos. “I learn all the time with them. The ideas they have for community building, in the courses I teach or on the discussion forums, are amazing.