Pennsylvania is a big state, and Penn State is a big university. But in the midst of that big university is a very small group, fully invested in Pennsylvania and its communities for now and for the future. That number is fourteen- the size of the most recent graduating class of PSU’s Rural-Urban Leadership Program, or RULE. One of those fourteen is USDA’s own Mat McKnight, an Area Specialist located in Pennsylvania’s Butler Office.
“RULE really challenges you to become involved in your community in a way that will be rewarding,” says McKnight. “The program asks you to take a good look at yourself and determine if you are giving back to your community and making it a better place.”
RULE is a two-year program, so a true commitment is required of those enrolled, but one look at McKnight’s background reveals a history steeped in commitment. A native of Western Pennsylvania, McKnight was a seventeen-year veteran in the Army who embarked on deployments to Iraq in both 2003 and 2009. After returning from the second deployment, McKnight joined USDA Rural Development in 2010 and has been there ever since, currently working as an Area Specialist for RD’s Water and Environmental Programs Division in Butler, PA. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in IT from Slippery Rock University and his Master’s in Business Ethics from Duquesne. With his wife he has three children aged 10, 9, and 7. In his free time he enjoys hunting, gardening, and golf.
What could possibly drive a man with such a wealth of knowledge and experience to join RULE?
“I hate public speaking,” he says, “which is exactly why I knew I needed to improve as a public speaker.” Being conscious of your strengths is important, but identifying areas of weakness is perhaps even more so, especially when there is a willingness to improve. This is a characteristic that McKnight shared with the vision of RULE from the start, and it’s also a characteristic that ensured McKnight would see out his commitment in the program to the end. “I benefited from the RULE program because it was an opportunity to share ideas among others who are also engaged in public policy issues, while continuing to build my confidence as a public speaker. I stayed with the program simply because it was fun. Every study institute was a new and unique experience. The program takes you to places that are both beautiful and historically important.”
In their own words, those involved in RULE at Penn State describe it as, “Pennsylvania’s transformative leadership development program”. The program targets those who are on a trajectory to becoming the future movers and shakers in our communities, and shapes them by teaching effective leadership practices built on tenants such as public issue engagement, strategic and efficient community design, and sustainable relationships. And on the topic of sustainable relationships, RULE’s relationship with Penn State has benefited greatly from the University’s far-reaching influence, as the program continues to enjoy an access to cutting-edge leadership research affecting both Pennsylvania and beyond. This is the kind of perk only a world-renowned university can offer to a program, and that fact is not lost on McKnight and his thirteen RULE class members.
When asked if there were any immediate plans to collaborate with class members after graduation, McKnight responded by saying that such collaborations are already underway with people ranging from legislative staffers to a County Director of Economic Development. “RULE was definitely a great opportunity to develop relationships with others who are passionate about the future of the Commonwealth,” he says.
One very interesting point came from asking about the main tenants of RULE, and which of those tenants perhaps serves him the best moving forward working in Pennsylvania. It’s this very unique idea of “shun-piking”, which as described by Mat is the habit of slowing down and taking the scenic route whenever possible. That may seem counter-intuitive, especially when working for an agency like Rural Development, but upon closer examination there is quite a bit of reason behind this practice.
“The idea is that when your duties take you to a new area, be sure to use it as an opportunity to learn what you can about that area. I think that this is important for us in the agency because we have to be knowledgeable about the areas that we serve.” To work in rural Pennsylvania effectively is to know rural Pennsylvania intimately. “Shun-piking” is a simple idea that looks to increase the benefit on both of those fronts.
So what is next for McKnight and the RULE Program? As for McKnight, he continues to follow in the spirit of one of RULE’s main tenants of becoming involved in the community. He’s done so by starting a new scouting organization with his family, because through RULE he has realized that volunteering keeps his work-life balance at a place that is comfortable for him. I asked him to give me three words that describe both RULE and Rural Development. His response:
“Developing Pennsylvania’s Future”. That’s the kind of commitment we can all get behind.
RULE is currently accepting applications for RULE XVI. All those interested are implored to visit www.rule.psu.edu for more information.