“What if I just won the demographic lottery?” 

When Elijah Boles ‛24, a Yale prefrosh who hails from Dayton, Tennessee, described his feelings of imposter syndrome with this impactful, succinct statement, I immediately related. He and I are just two of many students from rural backgrounds who grew up feeling as though we were not meant for higher education beyond our local environments—in spite of feeling stifled within the academic cultures of our school systems.

Across the United States today, an increasing number of students are losing their intrinsic motivation to learn and their belief in social mobility because they view school as an obligation, not an opportunity. This is a testament to the academic culture of today’s underfunded grade schools—specifically, the discrepancy between what these students will most benefit from, and what they are often provided.

This has personally affected my educational experience and that of my classmates. A foundational problem exists when a student like me in rural Kentucky (or in numerous other historically isolated, impoverished regions in America) lacks access to resources and technology that are the backbone of modern education. In addition to the reality of limited opportunity in rural America, there are fundamental implications to confining one’s experience to a single town or city for one’s whole life. The educational culture promoted in small school districts tends to manifest as close-mindedness and xenophobia that must be combated in the classroom, where a child’s foundational values are learned and internalized. 

The systems of education inequity have been highlighted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of the fight for racial justice. The past three months must serve as a wake-up call—educational equity can no longer be a cause overlooked. To ensure that these unfair disadvantages do not persist, I believe we must increase funding for public school systems to advance intellectual challenge, update curriculum to embrace diversity, and provide greater access to academic resources in remote and impoverished regions of the country.

As a student of Murray High in Murray, Kentucky, I’ve always felt that my peers and I needed more resources to prove our worth. Despite my school’s track record as one of the highest ranked public school districts in the state of Kentucky, we lack the funding and access to opportunity that our larger city-centered public school counterparts are afforded. In fact, funding and access are quite innately, legislatively linked in many cases of rural public education inequity.

Under the state-instituted policy of public education funding known as Average Daily Attendance, California, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas, and New York public schools are penalized financially for every day a student is not in a classroom setting, ready to learn. Of the four alternative public funding options utilized by states across the U.S., Average Daily Attendance places value on a student’s presence and engagement in classroom learning experiences most of all—however, it is not without faults that particularly impact remote regions. Schools in these states lose funds whether a student’s absence is excused or unexcused. This means a student who, for example, misses several days of school to travel to and from the nearest city/urban center to compete in an academic competition costs the school just as much as an unexcused absence of the same amount of days. Students at schools within or nearby city-centers are thus at an advantage in this regard. A possible solution to this issue of public-funding, across all states, would be to enact policy that allows for Average Daily Attendance counts to only be negatively impacted by unexcused absences.

Situations like the one detailed above are quite reflective of the crisis America currently faces in solving problems related to educational equity. It has, unfortunately, become out of character for small, rural school districts to encourage their students to look outside of the immediate community to pursue their educational and occupational aspirations. However, the sentiment of resilience has proven to change the assumed fates of many seeking higher education at world-class institutions. Here are the stories of three students from rural backgrounds who now get to call Yale home: Clayton Land ‘22, Judah Millen ‘24, and Elijah Boles ‘24.

For Land, President of the Rural Students Alliance at Yale and originally from Anderson County, Kentucky, being rural is in many ways a blessing—and I agree. In interviews with The Politic, Land, Millen, and Boles have shed light on the fact that growing up in rural environments emphatically shaped their aspirations for the future. However, this could be because certain academic focuses did not appear to be viable options. Though Land, Millen, Boles and I all feel very excited and passionate about pursuing careers in politics, the social sciences, and the humanities, it is important to recognize that the quality of STEM education we received simply does not compare to that of other, larger and better-funded districts. Land had never experienced education in a science lab setting until he reached college, and Millen describes that, beginning in middle school, the quality of math education began decreasing sharply, and with it, his desire to pursue possible STEM careers. 

When asked about the academic rigor of his high school, Land replied, “My school was not intense at all. When I told people [at Yale] that I had a 4.0 in high school, students from [cities like Chicago and New York] thought that was so impressive. I really felt the “jump” [after high school, and] the learning curve was big coming to Yale.” 

When I asked Millen, of Mendocino County in Northern California, to describe what it means to be a part of rural America, he elaborated with qualities of expansive, untouched landscapes and agriculturally-based local industries. In addition to the natural attributes of the rural midwest, what I related to most in my conversation with him was the fact that we both experienced harassment in school settings on the basis of our religious beliefs. Millen recalls experiencing anti-semitism as early as the age of 12—around the same age that I also began to deal with the Islamophobia of many of my classmates. This is arguably the greatest concern that people from small-town backgrounds should have—there will always be people of historically marginalized identities in rural America, and our voices need to be listened to intently as well.

Experiencing different cultures and learning from updated curricula which explicitly value diversity and inclusivity can do wonders to eliminate innate biases and foster communities that thrive because of the many unique parts that make them whole. In fact, Tyler Murphy, a Fayette County (Kentucky) Public Schools Board of Education member, issued a proposal just days ago, urging the school board and Fayette County community to work towards implementing a Social Studies curriculum focused on Social and Racial Justice. In his words, “Education is the bedrock of a democracy. The path to unraveling systemic, institutional barriers and moving toward racial and social justice flows through the Social Studies classroom. We must acknowledge that black history, brown history, women’s history, immigrant history, LGBTQ history, and the history of all marginalized groups—they are all our history…they should also be embedded in our approach to educating our students about this shared history.”

As far as unfounded stereotypes go, I completely sympathize with Boles—particularly in regards to assumptions that inadvertently maintain the standards of bigotry often tolerated in rural America. When asked about misconceptions of rural America in his interview with The Politic, Boles responded, “being an intellectual isn’t only confined to the coffee shops of urban areas. [Some rural] populations are…predisposed to certain thought processes, [but] anywhere you go, you’ll see a lot of variance.” 

It’s true that you will find depth of thought in any microcosm you find yourself in, but for some reason, this truth is especially disregarded for rural communities. This leads to the culture of complacency—an unwillingness to pursue intellectual challenge—to which many bright students in my school and similar school districts fall victim. The local community college and state universities are what we are bred to aim towards. We’re even encouraged through the mannerisms of some administrators and teachers to stay in our hometowns and revitalize our communities wherever possible. 

These “stifling” school climates are likely inspired by analyses of the “brain drain” trend, which attempts to contextualize the increasing incidence of high achieving students leaving their rural or remote origins with no intention to return. However, I feel confident, now more than ever, that young people are interested in utilizing a top-tier education to make strides towards cultures of acceptance and inclusivity in the places they call home. This is, partly, in hopes of reaching a day where we are not written off as “barefooted hillbillies” incapable of adopting progressive and xenophilic behaviors to all our neighbors.

For the students who ultimately succeed at achieving admittance to selective institutions, imposter syndrome is still a reality. In rural high schools that promote dual-credit college courses over the more rigorous AP or IB curricula, students enter college and experience a learning curve, as Land mentioned. This greater difficulty in adjusting to college lectures and finals than those who attended more intense private or public magnet high schools often induces a sense of disbelonging. In addition, by nature of living hours from nearby, more-populated cities, we are distanced from many incredible extracurricular endeavors our counterparts are afforded.

In my conversation with Land, he recounted meeting different people at Yale who, as high-schoolers, were able to compose with Lin-Manuel Miranda or intern at Google and Apple headquarters—opportunities rarely presented to, let alone entertained as approachable by, students from rural backgrounds. The idea of “winning the demographic lottery” hints at the subtle uncertainty Land, Millen, Boles, I, and so many others experience—if it’s true that our high school course rigor and our involvement in certain extracurriculars differ from what’s typical of ivy-league admits, were we simply chosen to fill a regional quota?

In these moments of doubt, however, Land says he often reminds himself of how the  resilience of an applicant is factored into the holistic review of an application: “those people did those things—you [the rural student] did even less, and you’re still at the same place.”

At the heart of the debate on educational equity in the United States rests the objective of securing welfare and equal access for students within all American school systems. Contrary to the belief of some, de facto inequity is present in 21st century America and is on the rise. Now more than ever are we witnessing the impact on students who were cheated of the ideal classroom setting at a young age, as well as how those socio-economic and geographic disparities manifest as an ever-widening equity gap between our country’s most financially secure and financially vulnerable. The school climate an individual is brought up in impacts one’s entire life trajectory, feeding into institutional, socio-economic, and representational systems of inequality. To help bridge this gap, legislators and advocates for social justice reform must first begin approaching inequities in education by paying specific attention to the distinct needs of schools in different geographical settings across the United states.

To improve standards of rural education, the most important measures to enact must deal with reforming funding policies like Average Daily Attendance and updating curricula across all disciplines taught in grade school, with an emphasis in social studies, to perpetuate inclusivity in classroom settings that ultimately contribute to a more xenophilic social climate within the hallways of grade schools as well. Public school systems in all 50 states can benefit from an Average Daily Attendance funding standard, so long as this policy only holds schools accountable for unexcused absences—in this case, schools are able to prioritize keeping students in the classroom without losing funding for those who receive validated attendance exemptions for academic and extra-curricular obligations that take away from week days. Additionally, by starting early and continually increasing a rural student’s classroom exposure to cultures and history that expand farther than their immediate, often homogenized surroundings, a future where the stigma of unintelligence amongst small-town dwellers will begin to diminish—and in its absence, a community culture of tolerance and acceptance will begin to take shape.

(Photo of rural Northern California by Judah Millen)

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