I’m from the mountains. In my almost four years at UNC, that phrase has earned me more knowing smiles and high-fives over the exchanging of area code 828 phone numbers than I can count.
My more cosmopolitan friends are confused by the meaningful connections I make with people based solely on geography, and I’m sure they grow tired of my constant talk about mountain air, rides on the Parkway and hiking Shining Rock. But these things remain important parts of my identity because of how foreign UNC can sometimes seem. Chapel Hill’s realities — social, political, economic, you name it — are nothing like what I see when I go back home.
When I was growing up, our one-screen movie theater got most of the major flicks well after they were released everywhere else, so I spent a good chunk of my childhood exploring the trails of the three government-protected forests within 15 miles of my house. If it sounds idyllic (or creepily like Mayberry), it’s because it is.
Not that there aren’t issues. In the early 2000s, three major manufacturers left Transylvania county, where I grew up. Altogether, these plants had employed 45 percent of my county’s total labor force. Even now, 10 years later, our child poverty rate is the highest in Western North Carolina, at a staggering 35.2 percent.
Unfortunately, my county isn’t an anomaly — and things are better there than they are in many other rural counties in the state, particularly in the far east and far west.
The divide between urban and rural in North Carolina is growing at an alarming rate. While many urban areas grow more connected to the global economy, rural areas are stagnating, struggling to move past the dying industries that were once the driving forces behind their citizens’ way of life.
This is why rural students can sometimes seem like a breed of their own on this campus. Our web of inside jokes and shared experiences is based on the understanding that Chapel Hill has given us an incredible opportunity — far more than our hometowns could have. And many of us share a sense of responsibility to dedicate our lives to making things better where we came from.
But we can’t do this on our own. UNC’s students will one day lead this state, and for North Carolina to succeed in the twenty-first century, the state must succeed everywhere. A state that consists of urban haves and rural have-nots isn’t sustainable, and if we fail to understand what is happening in rural North Carolina, we can’t expect to make meaningful improvements.
Over the next few months I’ll be exploring the rural experience of North Carolina: the ways in which life there is different, the unique challenges it presents and why our university can and should be a leader in moving rural North Carolina forward.