When I first announced, giddy, that not only had I been accepted to Yale but had decided to attend, a family friend, rather than offer congratulations, uttered this sentence: “Don’t let them corrupt you.”
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I come from rural Appalachia, a community that superficially lacks diversity but is deeply misunderstood by the rest of the country. I initially brushed the comment aside, but the more I considered it, I asked myself, “Why is Yale misunderstood by Appalachians?” This inevitably prompted, “Is Appalachia misunderstood by Yale?” Such concerns have led me to question whether other Appalachians and myself will be accepted and find our niches at Yale and if we so choose, be able to return home after our education.
To my family friend, Yale is a symbol of everything that is perceived wrong by Appalachians: elitism, liberalism and well-intended environmentalism that destroys Appalachian jobs. To Yale, is Appalachia as negative as it is depicted by national media? In recent years, Appalachia, particularly rural West Virginia — the birthplace of my parents and my ancestors — has become a sort of geographic poster child for white poverty, unemployment, ignorance and addiction. For Appalachians like myself, leaving home for another world is daunting. Will we belong? Will we be appreciated? Will our views be respected? Will we be respected when we come home?
I am the first student from my high school to attend Yale and the second ever to attend an Ivy League university, the first having graduated some fifteen years ago. After my acceptance, I quickly garnered the nickname “Yale” from peers and teachers alike, which at first seemed an endearing note of pride but became tiresome and alienating. Classmates whom I had once talked to about a myriad of topics now seemed transfixed on only discussing my future postsecondary career. While a Yale acceptance alone is remarkably rare, for Appalachians it is completely unheard of. According to Statistical Atlas, in West Virginia, only 24.6 percent of adults over 25 attain a higher degree, compared to the national average of 36.7 percent. According to College Factual, over 30 percent of Yale students come from just New York — where 41.6 percent over 25 attain a higher degree — and California — where 38.7 percent over 25 attain a higher degree. To Appalachians, this reinforces the perceived elitism of the university. Unfortunately, I experienced this perception through alienation from those I had shared an identity with just days before.
In his memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance details a similar experience when he left his hometown, Middletown, in Appalachia for New Haven. When asked if he attended Yale by a Middletown woman whose nephew was a student at Yale, he was uncertain on how to respond. “I wasn’t sure what to say … I was still uncomfortable admitting that I’d become an Ivy Leaguer … Was I a Yale Law student, or was I a Middletown kid with hillbilly grandparents? If the former, I could exchange pleasantries and talk about New Haven’s beauty; if the latter, she occupied the other side of an invisible divide and could not be trusted. At her cocktail parties and fancy dinners, she and her nephew probably even laughed about the unsophisticates of Ohio and how they clung to their guns and religion … My answer was a pathetic attempt at cultural defiance: ‘No, I don’t go to Yale.’”
Such identity crises are to be expected when one, like Pygmalion’s Eliza, tries their hand at upward mobility, and Yale is as “up” as an Appalachian teenager can go. Yale offers over five hundred extracurriculars, including 39 cultural organizations, but none focused on the unique plight faced by Appalachian students.
I wonder if Yale will accept me, even if I come from “redneck country,” “yee-haw country,” or, most popularly, “Trump country.” I wonder if some nine or ten months from now I will feel welcome in West Virginia, let alone want to call it home. I wonder if, when my friend told me not to let Yale corrupt me, he knew he was telling me not to let my identity change, but remain wholly Appalachian, doomed to not find a niche at college and be ostracized in my hometown.
The identities of Appalachian students at Yale are as unique as anyone’s and hinge on the experiences that occur the moment from acceptance to Yale to postgraduation. In four years’ time, I suppose it will be clear where I most identify. It is my hope for all Appalachian students at Yale that we find our niches, either on campus, home or elsewhere.
Sharla Moody is a first year in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .