My first class at Northwestern University took place in Harris Hall L07. Instead of focusing on the professor at the podium, my gaze fell on a blonde-haired girl donning a blue sweater. She was one of only three people in the room with blonde hair, an anomaly I had never witnessed. In my 30,000-person hometown of Holland, Michigan — known for the slogan “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much” — blonde hair and blue eyes constitute the majority.
Rural communities are conducive to homogeneity, not only in appearance but also in attitude. Northwestern’s more diverse demographics can come as a shock to students from these areas.
As a multiracial student with an immigrant mother, I feel no connection with any one racial demographic group. I do, however, feel strong ties toward one category that isn’t measured by the University: students from rural communities.
And after moving to the Chicago area, some rural students serve as intermediaries between the political, economic and social intricacies of these two worlds.
In the outskirts of Missouri’s southwestern territory, home of Netflix’s “Ozark,” lies Rogersville, Missouri, a town of just 4,000 people. Though most Rogersville residents attend Baptist church services every Sunday, McCormick third-year Ben Cox’s only connection to church came from his grandfather, a prominent Baptist preacher in the community. When people asked, “What church do you go to?” Cox’s response of “I don’t” was typically met with judgment.
Faith among Rogersville inhabitants was not the area’s only defining feature. In the 2020 election, Cox says a majority of the people in his town voted for Trump. He was part of the handful that did not.
“Someone would bring up a news story, and I would end up getting into an argument with everyone in the class,” he says.
Since coming to Northwestern, Cox says those arguments have diminished, as he shares similar political beliefs to the University’s primarily liberal student body.
Partly due to a clash in political opinion, Northwestern students often want to depart from the rural communities where they grew up. When they return home, it’s only to see family. Weinberg third-year Nathan Ryan returns to his 6,000-person town of Richmond, Michigan, during breaks to see relatives. He says people in the Richmond area tend to live there their whole lives.
“From an early age, I didn’t really envision myself doing the same,” he says. “I realized how limited a worldview people could end up with.”
Living out of the way
When Medill second-year Maria Heim revealed she was looking into colleges outside of New England, others in her hometown of Atkinson, New Hampshire, questioned why she wanted to leave. A self-described “ambitious” kid, Heim felt she needed a larger community than Atkinson’s population of 7,000.
“When I told parents, ‘This is where I’m applying to, and I want to go here,’ they would say, ‘Why?’” Heim says. “There were definitely some strange reactions and disconnect.”
In some ways, Heim says, Atkinson residents live in paradise. The seasons are beautiful: Skiing in the winter provides an even balance to country club summers. When someone leaves, the rest search for an explanation.
Ryan received similar reactions about attending Northwestern. A few suggested his decision was an act of defiance.
“I feel like people can have this weird attitude when you tell them that you’re going out of state,” Ryan says. “Maybe like, ‘What, is going to college in Michigan not good enough for you?’”
Ryan and Heim’s hometowns’ suspicion around their desire to leave may stem partly from the insular nature of small-town economies. According to Small Town Sustainability, a book by urban studies researchers Paul Knox and Heikie Mayer, many small-town economies are derived from generations of families employed in the same sector.
While the growth of suburban communities has skyrocketed over recent decades, rural communities have dwindled. A 2018 Vox article by Alvin Chang, “Those who leave home, and those who stay,” found people are more likely to leave their smaller hometowns during their late teens or early 20s in search of school and work, stripping rural communities of economic opportunity.
The economic state of rural communities is by no means bountiful, which leads to relocation in search of jobs, says Michael Allen, Northwestern alumnus and associate professor in the Department of History.
“There are two types of people in rural America: those who own farms and property that ties them to a place, and others who don’t and tend to move around a good deal,” Allen says.
There is indeed life beyond the rolling hills of Missouri, the forested areas of New Hampshire and the farmland of Michigan’s east coast. Ryan says the close-mindedness of Richmond, made his high school self question why moving to a community with more diversity — in all senses of the word — was so taboo.
Country kid in the Second City
Cox spent his first quarter at Northwestern taking remote classes in his hometown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He says immersion in the Northwestern world from afar was “weird” and sort of a “middle ground.”
“It felt like something distant and different,” Cox says. “It was hard to feel like I was actually at school or in school or going to Northwestern.”
Once on campus, Northwestern’s proximity to the third-largest city in the country can prompt an adjustment period for students from small towns. Heim’s hometown is 371 times smaller than Chicago’s population, and she says confusion was the defining feature of her first year. The sheer amount of money students had shocked her, and she says she spent nights on the phone with her mom wishing to find students with similar experiences.
According to Allen, Northwestern wasn’t always cosmopolitan. In 1997, when he attended graduate school in Evanston, Northwestern mostly drew students from the surrounding midwestern area. At a school like Northwestern, Allen encountered students with greater cultural capital, which he says comes with a degree of intimidation.
The University has since risen to the 10th place in U.S. News’ rankings of the country’s best universities and pulls students from around the world.
“On the whole, I would say [expansion] is a good thing, but it can be one of those things that makes people from towns like mine feel they don’t fit,” says Allen, who hails from the 20,000-person town of Hays, Kansas.
At Northwestern, Allen works with first-generation and low-income students through Student Enrichment Services (SES).
However, SES does not offer specific programming for those with rural backgrounds struggling to adjust to university. Technology is a limiting factor in communities where exposure to the outside world is sparse. Cox says it was only at Northwestern when he first used a TI-84 calculator, a graphing device necessary for post-secondary mathematics. He felt behind coursework wise due to his high school’s complete lack of AP classes.
“In introductory math classes, most people had already taken calculus,” he says.
Cox had not.
Now a senior about to graduate into the working world, I have spent many nights tabbing through cities across the globe for my next move. Memories of quiet, sandy beaches along the Michigan coast and European-esque, one-road shopping strips drift in and out of memory. In between the cracks of my upbringing lay a community stuck in their ways, with passive-aggressive comments about my or my mother’s racial makeup and anthems of religiosity interwoven with threads of white saviorism.
Some Northwestern students feel a disconnect from both the University and their rural communities. However, a few still return to their hometowns equipped with a new perspective. Others plan on taking what they have learned from home to new places.
Heim sees herself moving where the job market takes her, but she considers Atkinson a strong place to raise a family. As a computer science major, Ryan feels rural America is inopportune for his field.
Cox imagines living somewhere in the middle: an area without the constant buzz of Chicago or even Evanston, but not entirely quiet.
For now, rural students are simply finding their way. Whenever Heim feels discouraged after losing out on an internship or failing to get into a club, she prides herself on her hard work and accomplishments.
“I think, ‘Hey, it’s okay because I’m still doing a lot for a girl who came out of this town,’” she says.