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Johnson ’24: Rural students deserve more

I recently presented a group project to my EDUC 0830: “Sociology of Education” classmates. On one slide, my group featured a link to a Mentimeter word cloud (a tool used to visually arrange keywords from respondent answers) for our classmates to anonymously respond to questions. The first question asked was, “What words do you associate with rural education?”

Some of the responses were positive and truly reflective of rural education — words like “close-knit” and “community.” Others accurately portrayed a few of the negatives: “isolated” and “underfunded.” When I glanced at the board again, I wasn’t surprised that some of my classmates had also used words like “hillbillies” and “hicks” to characterize my education. Prior to that moment, I felt proud of myself for playing a role in teaching on a subject very personal to me as a student from rural West Virginia. But in that moment, my pride sank. My naivety had hidden what I had suspected all along: My classmates had already settled on belittling opinions of rural education.

And in my experience, prejudice against rural education and rural students at Brown has not been limited to a few isolated incidents. I have heard an endless number of derogatory phrases on campus from Brown students and faculty. Words that devalued my community. Words that diminished my identity. Words that made me feel like Brown was not the school for me. Rural students have previously told The Herald that classmates from suburbs and cities don’t understand the rural student experience. For a place that purports to welcome all, the Brown community has left its rural students feeling isolated and disparaged. We deserve better.

I came to Brown knowing what my attendance could possibly mean for me. I had two fears before starting college: First, that by going to Brown, I could possibly become the J.D. Vance of my generation, promoting and profiting from elitist caricatures of Appalachians. Second, that I would be made to feel inferior to my classmates based on the pretense that their state was superior to mine. Only the latter fear has manifested. 

“People from West Virginia are smart?” one student asked.

“There’s no way you’re from West Virginia,” retorted another. 

Never in my life did I question my identity more than when I first came to Brown. I listened intently to my voice and carefully chose my words, wary of the Appalachian slang that would betray me as somehow less than my peers. The time eventually came when I had successfully trained myself to no longer speak beautiful words with my beautiful accent. 

For a while, I never mentioned where I called home unless it was absolutely necessary. I felt conditioned to feel ashamed of who I was and where I was from. I gave in to the elitist narrative I saw around me, that people living in rural areas and Appalachia were inadequate in virtually every aspect of life — especially in intelligence. 

By the third month of my first year, I was prepared to transfer out of Brown and finish college at a school where I would be surrounded by people like me — people from rural communities. I realized, however, that this response was the one that my tormentors expected: to run away when it gets tough. Little did they know that us “rednecks” have a long history of fighting back, and we know how to showcase our resiliency in the face of adversity all too well. 

These challenges are by no means small: We are at a disadvantage when it comes to doing well in college due to factors including socioeconomic status, quality of K-12 schools, dialect and a lack of access to the cultural capital that’s necessary for success in higher education — especially at elite institutions like Brown. But in spite of many obstacles, students like me retain the potential to thrive and grow academically and socially. Yet non-rural students use our accents and hometowns to invalidate our intelligence. 

I am tired of having to defend the humanity of rural students and our communities. Tired of proving that we are deserving of a quality education. Tired of arguing that investing in rural students is worthwhile

When students like me “win” in the college admissions process, we are accepted into Brown and then left, in my experience with little support, to navigate an institution where we often feel we don’t belong. To me, it seems that Brown and other elite institutions extend the benefits of a world-class education to a mere few — just 5% of applicants admitted to the class of 2026 are from rural areas —  who then often feel alienated once arriving on campus. All the while, the University benefits from the narrative that everyone is accepted here. 

This needs to change.

However, this deeply-ingrained culture won’t change on its own. I believe the University and its non-rural students can’t (or won’t) do it; it is therefore up to us, the rural students, to make a difference.

We can no longer be complacent about the disrespect that we internalize. Rural students are not expected to get this far, and our presence on campuses such as Brown’s is a feat in itself. It is time for us to show that we do indeed belong here. So talk with your long, drawn-out accent, defend your hometown of hardworking people and condemn the ignorance that attempts to deny your personhood. We must uplift other rural students in their academic and professional careers — we are disrespected, so we must be the ones to support each other.

What we need is a club for that exact purpose. A rural students’ collective is the formal meeting place that we need and deserve. In an institution where rural students feel lost and deserted, we will soon find refuge in the community of each other. 

To the non-rural students and faculty who are reading this and wondering how best to support us: Don’t perpetuate stereotypes that rural students are dumb, ignorant and unintelligible. This change is necessary given how rural students are treated, and it would also help incorporate an understanding of rural areas into the curriculum and broader discourse. Rural America is not a monolith. We are valuable, deserving and hardworking individuals. Brown, its faculty and its students should welcome and embrace our contributions — it’s about time. 

While there may not be many of us, we are here. And yes, we are actually smart. 

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Colby Johnson can be reached at colby_johnson@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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