Madelyn Kumar, Senior Photographer

When Lianna Byler ’24 first arrived at Yale, she had never taken an Uber or ordered any kind of food delivery. 

Byler is from Hartstown, Pennsylvania — which, per the 2010 census, stood at a population just over 200. She told the News that coming to Yale marks the first time many rural students encounter such services, which are childhood staples for many of their urban or suburban peers. The same goes for public transport, from the Metro North to the Amtrak to airports, Byler said.

In line with these varied experiences, the University has worked over the past six years to increase emphasis on recruiting, enrolling and supporting students from rural and small-town areas. 

“Geographic diversity is a complex topic, but one way to think of it is not just admitting students from all 50 states, but from diverse communities within and across those states,” associate director of undergraduate admissions Corinne Smith wrote to the News. “States are vast and each one has rural, urban, and suburban areas. Yale’s admissions process allows us to review students holistically within their specific context, background, high school, neighborhood, and geographic setting.”

Smith also serves as one of two co-advisors for the Rural Students Alliance at Yale, a group that works to offer community for rural and small-town students. Byler currently serves as president of RSAY.

Looking to the future, Byler and founding RSAY member Franklin Eccher ’19 expressed support for an expansion of on-campus support through a peer liaison program geared toward rural and small-town students. Smith, too, favors the idea. 

“I think rural PLs would be such an asset for the campus because a lot of rural and small town students don’t realize their identity as small town students until they get here and even afterwards,” Byler said. “I think it would be invaluable, especially as rural students navigate public transport for the first time to the academic rigors and just overall want to find other people that have had the life experiences they had in high school.”

Geographic diversity in the admissions process

According to Smith, the push for increasing geographic diversity on college campuses stems from growing recognition that many students from rural and small-town areas think of schools like Yale as “unattainable or unaffordable,” and may face disproportionate barriers to entry — such as lack of information and a reduced college-going culture. 

At the same time, rural and small-town students often bring unique and valuable perspectives to campus. There is a strong correlation between students from rural and small-town areas and those who are first-generation or low-income, which means that many students have to be particularly creative to seek opportunities that further their academic and extracurricular interests, according to Smith.

As early as 2017, the Yale admissions office began to expand their outreach efforts to include Zoom tours and information sessions that are specifically geared towards students from these backgrounds and make information about Yale more accessible. Transitions to virtual outreach models, brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, made it possible to bring more accessible live information events to rural and small-town students, who are sometimes situated in areas geographically difficult to reach in-person.

This past fall, the admissions office returned to its first in-person school visits in three years. The admissions office now offers a mix of in-person and virtual outreach programming, including information sessions and tours.

Smith also pointed to the newly-returned Ambassadors Program, which hired current Yale students to visit high schools in their hometowns over the November and winter recesses, as a tool to reach out to more rural and small-town students.

The admissions office’s work around geographic diversity specifically refers to domestic applicants. While the College recruits and admits students worldwide, their discussion of and approach to geographic diversity in this way is specifically geared toward applicants from U.S. states and territories. 

Rural students face certain challenges when applying to college, such as fewer AP/IB courses offered in high school, further distance to travel for college fairs and a perception that top colleges may not be attainable, according to Byler and Eccher.

“There are different expectations and different requirements for a student who’s applying to [an Ivy League school] than your local public university,” Byler said. “There is also the idea that very selective institutions and Ivy Leagues are just so expensive. There’s that sticker price of how much it is a year and there isn’t a lot of knowledge about the generosity of their financial aid programs. I think that also ties in that perception of attainability.” 

There are around 80 to 100 rural and small town students that enroll in Yale each year, according to comments Smith gave to the Daily Yonder.

Campus experience

When they arrive at Yale, many rural and small-town students seek community. In 2018, Eccher and Jared Michaud ’19 founded the Rural Students Alliance at Yale to provide exactly that. The organization provides help with adjusting to living in a city like New Haven, such as navigating public transportation and how to get to and from campus.

Smith serves as a co-advisor for RSAY, alongside Timothy Dwight Dean Sarah Mahurin. 

A core part of RSAY’s goal is to offer a space where students can discuss similar experiences associated with the transition from a rural to an urban environment and to then collectively advocate for more support. 

“It was a two-day Odyssey to get back and forth from my hometown to campus,” Eccher said, speaking of his journey between Yale’s campus and his home in Montrose, Colorado, while he was a Yale College student. “That was something that RSAY couldn’t necessarily support, but it was helpful to find other people who have that experience and then could talk to the admissions office and say, ‘this is what it’s really like to get back and forth to campus which can be a real challenge.’”

According to Byler, RSAY is now working to plan events for the end of the fall semester. 

Their other events over the term have included an ice cream social and a blue-booking event. Generally, RSAY also works with the admissions office to host Q&A webinars for prospective rural and small-town student applicants, according to Byler.

What’s next?

Smith and RSAY are also supportive of a rural peer liaison program, similar to current offerings through Yale’s cultural houses, Student Accessibility Services and the Office of LGBTQ+ Resources. 

In existing peer liaison programs, University student employees are assigned by residential colleges. 

Smith, Byler and Eccher all described ways in which the presence of peer mentors, especially early in a student’s time at Yale, could help support the rural or small-town experience. 

“Rurality and the experiences of rural and small-town students are not monolithic,” Smith wrote. “They differ by state, region, and community. However, there are absolutely things that many rural students have in common. Whether that’s needing to learn how to use public transportation, struggling to sleep due to street noise, or being overwhelmed by the vast curricular options at Yale. So many transitional moments can be aided by the existence of mentors or Peer Liaisons who can relate to that experience and offer advice.”

Eccher also noted the value in having a peer that can assist in finding other supportive communities. 

For him specifically, as he is from a small town in Colorado, he missed being part of the outdoors. 

“I didn’t really know how to access parks like East Rock or Yale’s outdoors program, so trying to find opportunities to get out of the New Haven bubble was also a real challenge,” Eccher said. “Having a peer liaison to help you find communities that are able to access some of those things can be really amazing.”

Aside from a potential peer liaison program, Byler is planning for the future of RSAY. Specifically, she hopes to build community through events, sharing playlists and other social activities this spring.

RSAY was founded in 2018.

Anika Arora Seth is the 146th Editor in Chief and President of the Yale Daily News. Anika previously covered STEM at Yale as well as admissions, alumni and financial aid. She also laid out the weekly print edition of the News as a Production & Design editor and was one of the inaugural Diversity, Equity & Inclusion co-chairs. Anika is pursuing a double major in biomedical engineering and women's, gender and sexuality studies.
Tristan Hernandez is the 147th Editor in Chief and President of the Yale Daily News. He previously served as a copy editor and covered student policy & affairs and student life for the University desk. Originally from Austin, Texas, he is a junior in Pierson College majoring in political science.