During the spring of my freshman year of college, I was failing chemistry and met with a dean. As I sat across from her, she gestured to my college admissions essay sitting on her desk: “Making your way to this institution from your community couldn’t have been easy. In case you’re having any doubts, let me just say this: You’re meant to be here.”
That fall, I’d left my rural hometown in Nebraska to attend college in Boston. I’d traded my high school class of 18 students — the same 18 students I’d known my entire life — for a class of over 1,000. Although I’d nearly completed my first year of college, my conversation with the dean marked the first time anyone had acknowledged that my path to higher education was unusual.
It’s because of this conversation — and the rarity of it — that I realized perspectives like mine are needed to bridge the gap between rural America and higher education.
While rural students encounter challenges similar to those faced by other underserved students, such as having to navigate the complex financial aid process with little assistance, some obstacles are specific to our student experience. To address these barriers and improve college access for rural students, colleges need to listen to rural voices.
For me, the challenges began in high school. For instance, my guidance counselor — who served as the guidance counselor for grades K through 12 — had only used the Common Application once before: the prior year, when my older brother applied to college.
In my college search, I largely relied on information gleaned from the internet and advice from my brother. Needless to say, in my school, preparation for standardized testing was minimal. Even if we wanted to take advantage of free online test preparation resources, the lack of high-speed internet access prevented my peers and me from doing so.
When I left my hometown to attend college, I knew my background would be different from that of my new peers. What I didn’t know was how different. At the time, I didn’t have the language for it. I struggled academically for the first time, earning mostly B’s and C’s while taking my college’s core curriculum. My high school didn’t offer any honors or Advanced Placement classes — I had exhausted its “advanced” curriculum by my junior year. I was hesitant to ask for higher-level Spanish classes because we shared our Spanish instructor with a neighboring school district, and she was already overworked.
Why spend four years of your life pursuing a degree when higher education doesn’t acknowledge or reduce the burden of your hardships?
When I enrolled in general chemistry in college, I thought I was prepared, having taken chemistry my senior year of high school. However, on the first day, I felt like a fish out of water; it seemed like another language.
Mostly, I struggled socially in an environment that had no overlap with the one I had grown up in. I was acutely aware of the socioeconomic divide at my college. Many of my peers regularly went on weekend skiing trips, wore brands I’d never heard of and boasted about their families’ international travels.
I’d progressed through K-12 with the same cohort of students, so college was the first time I had to seek out and make friends. Yet I was terrified to perpetuate the many stereotypes I felt my peers held of people like me, afraid they would write me off as ignorant because of their unfamiliarity with rural voices like mine.
Slowly, I began to believe the words of the dean that I was “meant to be here.” I started to speak up in class, realizing that my rural upbringing gave me a different perspective. During my junior year, I found a home in the English department, where the works and thoughts of rural authors like Willa Cather are revered. Now, as a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in English, I have begun to realize how my research interests are tied to my experiences as a rural student.
Although college-going has increased among rural students in recent years, the number filling out the federal application for financial aid dropped in 2020. While many attribute this drop to the pandemic, I see it as emblematic of larger problems plaguing rural students’ pursuit of higher education. Already exhausted and frustrated by the emotional and structural hardships the pandemic laid bare — such as isolation and lack of access to high-speed internet — rural students must reckon with the formidable question: Why spend four years of your life pursuing a degree when higher education doesn’t acknowledge or reduce the burden of your hardships?
I’m not advocating that all rural students need to pursue, or should aspire to, higher education. Instead, I’d argue that it shouldn’t be so difficult for the students that do. Improving rural students’ access to higher education isn’t an impossible task; it can be done. Consider the University of Georgia’s successful ALL Georgia Program, a new initiative developed specifically for rural students that provides scholarships, summer academic preparation programs, mentors and academic advising.
Rural voices must be heard and taken seriously to improve college access for rural students. It’s one reason why I created the Rural Student College Guide, a free resource dedicated to reflecting on the rural student experience, strengthening outreach to rural high schools, developing rural-focused resources and fostering conversation among rural students. By sharing my experience, I hope to encourage other rural students to share their experiences and pave the way for others to bridge the gap between rural America and higher education, so that the distance between the two — both literally and figuratively — will become smaller.
Lily Nagengast is a graduate teaching assistant in the English Department of Georgetown University, where she is earning her master’s degree. She is from Bloomfield, Nebraska, and graduated cum laude from Boston College in 2018 with a degree in English and gender studies.
This story about rural college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.