New faculty profile: Tessa Conroy explores rural livability

Tessa Conroy joined the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics as an associate professor and extension specialist in June 2023. Before transferring 100% of her faculty appointment to CALS, she held a tenure-track position with the Division of Extension since 2016. 

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the small town of Goldendale, Washington. Most people think of Washington as getting a lot of rain but on the eastern side of the state where I’m from, it’s very dry with a lot of wheat fields making it known as “the golden gate to the Evergreen State.”

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I went to Gonzaga University for my undergraduate degree in business administration and then to Colorado State University for my master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics. Before joining AAE in CALS, I was part of the Division of Extension as a community economic development specialist, and I still work with Extension as an integrated specialist within CALS. 

How did you get into your field of research?
My hometown has struggled ever since the aluminum plant, a major employer, closed in the 90s, and that sparked my interest in economic inequities and disadvantaged communities. It led to studying economic development and trying to do policy-relevant research and outreach. Within economic development, I have focused on entrepreneurship, especially for audiences that may face additional barriers or challenges to starting a business, namely women, people of color and rural residents.

What are the main goals of your current research program? 
My current research is focused more directly on rural communities and identifying the factors that contribute to rural livability. Consolidation or closure of public services, consumer amenities and civic institutions has accelerated across rural America in recent decades. The quantity and quality of schools, hospitals, banks, grocery stores, pharmacies, libraries and daycares has steadily declined across large parts of rural America. Simultaneously, participation in churches, volunteer organizations and in-person social clubs has also diminished from prior eras. While these developments are well documented and widely understood, the realities of rural decline are far from uniform across the U.S., with many communities bucking the trend, finding ways to thrive. My future research projects aim to empirically understand these success stories, quantifying the degree to which communities in the rural United States have been able to sustain their public services, civic institutions and quality of life—a condition which we refer to as “livability”—and examine the underlying factors associated with sustained levels of local economic vitality.

What attracted you to UW–Madison? 
It’s a place I knew I would learn a lot, grow as a researcher and have great colleagues. I was excited to experience the environment of a large land-grant institution and live in Madison.

What was your first visit to campus like?
I accepted the job without ever visiting, and, before arriving in Madison, I had never been to Wisconsin or the upper Midwest. My first day was getting keys and filling out paperwork but I remember being struck by how big campus is and what a great location it is—downtown, right next to the lake. 

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with? 
I hope they feel informed and empowered as voters deciding on important policy issues.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use? 
Twitter/X handle: @tessa_conroy

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how. 
Definitely. Working with the Division of Extension means regularly engaging with communities on economic development topics. With my research, I try to address the issues they’re facing whether it be access to broadband or childcare, recovering after losing a major employer, or trying to improve their quality of life. It’s a two-way street, sharing the latest research and our findings, and learning from them what the issues and challenges are on the ground as well as what’s working well. 

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties? 
If not for start-up businesses, net job creation in the U.S. would be negative going back to at least the late 1970s. 

What are your hobbies and other interests? 
Following college basketball, visiting parks and breweries, trying new restaurants and spending time with family.