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Rural students reflect on their journey to Brown

Students discuss leap from rural to urban life

<p>University faculty and administration proposed increasing the University’s orientation program from four to six days at the last faculty meeting of the year Dec. 7. </p>

University faculty and administration proposed increasing the University’s orientation program from four to six days at the last faculty meeting of the year Dec. 7.

From kindergarten to eighth grade, Grace Skavdahl ’23 spent each school day in the same building: a bright pink, one-room schoolhouse 30 miles south of the nearest town. In the days she spent traveling back and forth between the schoolhouse and her family’s cattle ranch, Skavdahl passed by friends and family living on ranches like her own, finding comfort in a place she could call home.

With time, Skavdahl’s passion for literature and her experiences visiting cities in the Northeast instilled in her a curiosity about the world beyond her native Harrison, Nebraska. In high school, an English teacher encouraged Skavdahl to apply to Ivy League colleges, explaining that many were looking to admit more students from rural areas. Bearing his advice in mind, Skavdahl entered the college admissions process and was accepted to Brown.

Recently, the University has sought to increase the presence of students from rural areas on its campus. Rural students are among the groups that the Office of Admissions currently prioritizes in its recruitment efforts, Dean of Admission Logan Powell explained in a Nov. 10 Undergraduate Council of Students meeting. Between application cycles for the class of 2024 and the class of 2025, the University saw a 23% increase in applications from students residing in locations defined as rural areas or small towns by the U.S. Census Bureau, The Herald previously reported.

For rural students like Skavdahl, coming to Brown has meant navigating city life for the first time. 

In traveling across the country, Skavdahl found herself en route to new opportunities and hurdles that life in Providence would bring.

Skavdahl’s previous education had not been as “rigorous” as Brown in many aspects. She noted that, while she was passionate about learning, she “didn’t come in with a lot of study skills,” such as completing multiple drafts of essays and studying for extended periods of time. 

Skavdahl said that during her first week as a first-year, she got pneumonia, which led her to miss all of her class’s orientation events. This, combined with being so far from home, led her to feel “very isolated.”

“It was hard, socially, and just being away from my family, especially with the way that I was raised. It’s very community-oriented,” she said. “I graduated with six kids in my class, and two of them were my cousins.”

Being away from her family and community “was definitely disorienting” and even “a little bit discouraging at first,” she said. But, for Skavdahl, being away from home did not mean a complete separation from those she depended on, and her family and friends sent her letters and messages checking in on her as she got used to Brown.

Satch Sumner-Waldman ’23, a resident of upstate New York, noted that despite not specifically bearing the location of his future college in mind when looking for schools, he was glad that he ended up in a smaller city like Providence as opposed to a bigger city like New York or Boston. “The transition is a bit easier going from such a small town to a more relaxed city like this,” he said.

When first looking at colleges, Ellie Madsen ’22 did not explicitly seek to attend a school in a city but wanted to gain experiences beyond what she could find in her hometown of New London, Wisconsin.

“I wanted to leave my hometown, which I think is common among a lot of other rural students,” she said. Near where she lived, Madsen said she did not see “the same educational opportunities” she found in cities, leading her to apply to Brown.

For Madsen, the idea of coming to college in a city had always been an “idealized picture” of the opportunity to find community in a space more aligned with her social and political beliefs. 

But, after arriving on campus, Madsen said that the biggest adjustment came from the culture shock of living in an environment like Brown.

“I definitely didn’t get what I imagined,” she said. “For me, I think the biggest change wasn’t necessarily the physical environment around me but more the types of people who I was meeting every day — most of them being from cities, having gone to really good high schools.”

Coming into Brown without the “cultural capital” of other students who attended more elite high schools and who were familiar with an Ivy League culture left Madsen facing barriers to integrating socially with those around her, feeling pressured to conform to their lifestyles.

“I just felt like such an outsider in that I felt like if I was going to have a conversation with somebody, I was literally putting on a performance and trying to fit in,” she said. For students who were more accustomed to the culture of wealthy, elite educational institutions, “it seemed so natural,” she added. “They had been engaging in this kind of social situation for their entire lives.”

For Andreas Rivera Young ’24, who grew up on a farm in rural Virginia, attending a private high school made him “feel pretty well prepared coming into Brown,” though he said it remains jarring to think about the number of wealthy students from urban areas who attend the University. Rivera Young noted that his discomfort and difficulty with navigating the social scene at Brown are linked both to his identity as a rural and U-FLi student.

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Rivera Young has observed an “affluent nature” to how students socialize. He noted students often visit other cities on the weekend, paying for transportation and lodging costs out of pocket. “I know it’s not intentionally exclusionary, … (but) that’s something that I just cannot do,” he said.

Skavdahl noted she was able to integrate better into Brown socially over time, finding friends on the equestrian team. Though she had worried coming from such a rural background would set her apart from her peers, she found that many appreciated hearing about her experiences.

Rivera Young said that, while he has not exclusively made friends with rural students in his time at Brown, he feels a different connection to rural students, who more often share and understand his experiences. 

Madsen agreed that she has found an appreciation for other rural students with whom she can identify. Students from urban and suburban areas “don’t have an understanding of what it’s like to live in a rural area, so I feel like they don’t understand that part of who I am.”

“It’s so rare for me to find a person (about whom) I’m like, ‘Oh, we have similar backgrounds,’” she added. “I really cling to that.”

“When I’m here, I do miss the quiet. It’s so quiet at home,” said Tuesday Mueller-Harder ’22.5. They said that they have found refuge in small pockets of campus that remind them of life in Vermont. For example, after visiting the University’s Conservatory, a greenhouse at 85 Waterman St., on a particularly difficult day, Mueller-Harder said they “suddenly felt like a person again.”

Regarding where they would like to live one day, Mueller-Harder said “the ideal would be living in the middle of nowhere … but like a five minute walk from the city.”

Sumner-Waldman noted that his time in cities has made him more interested in living in a city in the future, though “bigger cities can be a bit intimidating.” 

But Skavdahl still feels a pull back to her roots in the country.

“I really do, personally, want to go back, maybe not to Nebraska, but somewhere a little bit more rural,” Skavdahl said. “It’s just where I personally feel the best and most comfortable.”

“I like seeing wide open spaces,” she added. “I miss the stars.”



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