Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.
01: Postcards: Four states. Four stories.
02: Roadside Attractions: ‘Hillbillies in Higher Ed’
Work in education — or write about it — long enough, and it can be tempting to start seeing zip code as destiny. In this week’s edition of Mile Markers, I wanted to showcase a few stories in which students were able to defy, and in some cases, even benefit from, their rurality to achieve their goals.
Elijah had grown up in Florida, where weed wasn’t a rare sight in beach towns dotting the coast. Still, Elijah was surprised by the level of marijuana use in Colorado, when his family moved to Pueblo — and he quickly discovered that not only was everyone at his middle school smoking, but also many of their younger siblings were too.
Surrounded by negative influences, Elijah struggled at first in the remote factory town on the slopes of southeastern Colorado. Even before his freshman year of high school was interrupted by the pandemic, his classes were often disrupted by fights that would break out in the hallways of his rough-and-tumble school.
He failed a freshman-year course. Began regularly skipping class. Soon, he needed an intervention if he was going to graduate at all.
Cue the Gateway to College program at Pueblo Community College, which helps students who are at risk of not graduating, guiding them through remedial courses and then a semester of college credits.
Elijah discovered the program after seeing his older brother participate in it and immediately get an offer to work as a welder after graduation. Simply being on a college campus helped Elijah — giving him access to greater guidance, the student gym, and more structured classes — which all helped him to overcome his difficult circumstances to get on a more affirming postsecondary path.
“I know it sounds like a pipe dream, but I want to become president,” Elijah told me in March. “For me, it’s about having a big dream. If you set your goals high, you’re going to accomplish something.
Hispanic students in rural areas already experience a unique combination of obstacles and opportunities in their higher education journeys. Add in being the child of indigenous Oaxacan immigrants, and there are other wrinkles to consider.
Rafael Lopez-Librado, the son of farmworkers in the Central Valley of California, wanted to attend a four-year college. However, he was facing a combination of challenges, including growing up in a non-English speaking household and attending a charter school system that saw almost none of its students go on to attend university.
As I reported last October:Rafael thought he was on track to attend university, but he wasn’t. Nobody at the charter school had ever told him about the specific courses he needed to be eligible for public universities in California, he said.
In fact, just four of more than 500 students in the previous year’s cohort had met those course requirements — and only about a quarter had graduated at all over a four-year span.
Rafael was able to keep his dream alive after a family friend, the UC Berkeley anthropologist Seth Holmes, realized he wasn’t on track to graduate and advocated on his behalf.
Together, they worked out a plan to finish dozens of remaining credits in just a few months, while also petitioning for a special admission into various universities.
Plus, after Open Campus published its story on Rafael, a host of education experts and two college presidents offered to help him get into the college or university that most fit his needs.
Finding the right mentor, and sharing his story, made all the difference.
- Rafael expected to go to a university — the system never did
- What I learned from Rafael
- California Postcards from the College Journey
Rafael Lopez-Librado in the living room of his home in Madera, Calif. (Photo: Nick Fouriezos)
Mentorship is a key factor in many of the success stories I’ve seen across rural America. It can make a huge difference when a student finds somebody who understands where they are from, and who has been where they are trying to go.
Such was the case for Ashlee Villarreal, who worked multiple jobs and took on a host of extracurriculars in the hopes of getting a full ride to college so that her family wouldn’t have to shoulder the financial burden of student loans.
As an upperclassman, Ashlee met Evelyn Irigoyen-Aguirre — a recent college graduate and Kansas State College Adviser who, like her, was born in Mexico and grew up in Garden City, Kansas.
Evelyn was able to help with more than just academics.
She not only knew what the Free Application for Federal Student Aid was, but also what it was like to be a lifelong translator for her parents.
She knew how Ashlee could get waivers to take the ACT for free, and also how every dollar counts when you’re trying to get good grades while also working to support your family from a young age.
“Write everything down. Don’t forget,” Evelyn told Ashlee, when it seemed like it was all just too much to manage.
“If you ever need help, I’m here.”
Ashlee and Evelyn. Photo: Courtesy of Evelyn Irigoyen-Aguirre
When Gabriel (“Gabe”) Clark graduated from high school in 2019,the Idaho Falls native didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment. “I didn’t have aspirations or a goal. I felt lost,” Gabe says.
Family and emotional hardships compounded. He had struggled with his grades after his electrician father was injured on the job, battling depression.
It was a gap year, working at a pool as a lifeguard, and also at a cemetery, of all places, that got him on the road toward recovery. The summer spent in the sun helped improve his self image and confidence … and set him back on the dream of his childhood: attending Stanford University.
Gabe enrolled at the College of Eastern Idaho, where he was able to get more personal attention and care from his teachers and mentors. By attending a smaller school in a rural region, he was able to have more of an outsize impact — including starting the community college’s first debate club, which made the finals in every competition they entered, all the way to the national competition in Washington, D.C.
Through the help of his professor and others, Gabe was able to earn a full-ride scholarship and get accepted into Stanford last spring … a moment he celebrated by lighting a Beyonce candle and dancing with his mother.
Gabriel Clark and his mother celebrate finding out that he has been accepted into Stanford University. (Courtesy: Clark)
02: Roadside Attractions
- Dispelling rural stereotypes. In this piece for the Daily Yonder, political economist Emilie K. Peine writes about her experience confronting anti-rural bias while teaching students at the University of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest. By exploring Appalachia through what sociologist Charles Tilly calls “big structures, large processes, huge comparisons” of globalization, Peine is able to help her students see rurality in new light.
- Using the past to chart the future. The University of Nebraska Kearney is using lessons from its “County School Legacy: Humanities on the Frontier” special archive to inform modern education at rural schools. For many years, only physical copies of the archive’s documents and oral histories were available … until Laurinta Weisse made it their mission to digitize everything. “It doesn’t do us any good if we’re the only ones who can find [these materials],” Weisse told the Daily Yonder.
- From psych unit to classroom. The University of North Carolina’s Neurosciences Hospital in Chapel Hill is transforming its third floor psych unit into a year-round school for youth patients, allowing teens and kids to learn while also getting treatment. “By arranging academic support and a connection back to a student’s regular school, hospital school staff work to alleviate that stress and prepare students for a smooth transition once they leave,” principal Mary Ruben told the Hechinger Report.
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