Ashlin Elliott walked out of her first Chemistry 101 midterm feeling like she’d done pretty well.
A fresh graduate of Columbia High School in Columbia, N.C., she’d received an A in Chemistry Honors. She’d taken both Advanced Placement classes that her school offered: AP Biology and AP Earth Science. She’d even gone to her school’s guidance counselor to seek out more challenging coursework at the closest community college an hour away. She’d made the most of every opportunity to pursue her dream of pharmacy school.
So when she flunked the test, it felt like a punch to the gut.
“I just remember I laid in bed and cried that whole day,” Elliott said. “I turned the lights off, I didn't go to dinner. I just laid there.”
After that exam, Elliott thought about dropping out or transferring a lot.
Like many other students at UNC, Elliot’s education in a small-town school district meant that some of the advantages others had in high school — a wide selection of AP courses, a myriad of school-sponsored extracurriculars, a guidance counselor well-versed in the selective college admissions process — weren’t available to her.
It’s something that made her transition to college more difficult — and sometimes led Elliott to think that she wasn’t meant to be at UNC at all.
“I still have had, and still do have, these moments where I feel like I don't belong, because these other people knew way much more coming in to college than I did.” Elliott said. “... I thought that I was prepared, and all these people knew these things that I never knew.”
80 of North Carolina's 100 counties are considered rural. These parts of the state have higher high school dropout rates, and like other rural areas across the country, fewer college graduates than more populated areas.
The UNC System has a goal within its five-year strategic plan: by the fall of 2021, the System hopes to increase 2016 levels of rural student enrollment by 11 percent.
But students from these areas can still face significant challenges during their time at UNC.
Some of those challenges may stem from the lower level of college graduates in the state’s rural areas, Daniel Klasik, assistant professor in the UNC School of Education, said.
“What that might mean is that these schools have less of what we refer to in higher education literature as a college-going culture, where the school is oriented around their graduates going to college,” Klasik said. “One of the consequences of that is there's just sort of less support about getting students through the application process and into college.”
It’s something that Brooklyn Brown, a senior studying English and graphic design, experienced when she decided to go to UNC.
Brown grew up on the Qualla Boundary of Cherokee and attended Swain County High School in Bryson City, N.C. The town is a five-hour drive from Chapel Hill, near the Tennessee border.
“I feel like, especially in Bryson City and in Cherokee, there's this stigma surrounding going to school and continuing your education and getting a college education,” Brown said.
Going to college wasn’t unheard of, Brown said, but most students stayed close to home, enrolling in the local community college or commuting to Western Carolina University.
When Brown decided to attend UNC, she said some members of her community were dubious.
“There was just a lot of people saying, 'She'll be back. She cares about her family too much to be away from them, that far away,” Brown said. “Of course I love my family. I'm very close with my family. But it kind of hurt my feelings that people doubted that I would be able to stay all four years and complete my education.”
In some communities, students moving away from home to attend college is expected. In her hometown, Brown said, it can carry a stigma.
The hesitation in these communities toward leaving home is not entirely unwarranted, Thurston Domina, professor and program coordinator for policy, leadership and school improvement in the UNC School of Education, said. "Oftentimes, human capital flows out of these areas when students obtain their degree."
“It's about this process where, you know, Chapel Hill attracts the best and the brightest from across the state,” Domina said. “And nine times out of 10 those students graduate and they congregate in places where there are lots of other college graduates.”
Playing a game where no one’s told you the rules
North Carolina is home to approximately 568,000 rural students, according to Public Schools First N.C. That’s the second-highest number in the country, behind only Texas. But schools in these areas face challenges such as poverty, underfunding and teacher shortages.
At sophomore Emily Murray's high school in Millers Creek, N.C., the curriculum was more focused on career technical education than college preparation, and Murray found that the guidance counselors at her school weren’t fully equipped to help her with the college application process.
“It was kind of like, 'You're on your own, if you want to go.'” Murray said.
If attending college isn’t the norm in a student’s community, Klasik said, students can miss out on what sociologists call the shadow curriculum — lessons in how to achieve success in the world of formal education.
There’s a lot of unspoken parts of navigating college that students may have to pick up on quickly if these habits weren’t instilled in them in high school as part of their school’s culture, Klasik said.
“I think a good analogy is, it's being asked to play a game where no one's told you what the rules are,” Klasik said. “You know roughly what college is supposed to look like, but you don't necessarily know all the ins and outs.”
Community on campus
The University has a variety of resources for rural students, Candice Powell, director of the Carolina Covenant Scholars Program, said.
“There are a number of programs that are focused on rurality,” Powell said, “And that speaks to the increasing emphasis and importance that we're placing on exercising the talents and strengths that come from students with rural backgrounds.”
She added that it can be helpful for students to develop their own sense of community on campus.
“Every student that's admitted here has the intellectual capacity to thrive, and we know that because every single student here is admitted under rigorous standards,” Powell said. “Where students may experience some differentiation is around their sense of connectedness to the institution, their sense of belonging, their network of support and engagement."
This sense of community is what ultimately helped Brown, Elliott and Murray adjust to life at UNC and feel like they had a home on campus.
For Brown, it was the Carolina Indian Circle and her sorority, Alpha Pi Omega.
There, her friends understand her background and she can speak freely without someone mentioning her Southern accent.
“It's nice to just be in those environments where it just feels like home, and you feel like you don't have to gear yourself up to talk to them,” Brown said.
“I always have to remind myself”
It’s important to remember that coming from a rural background is not a liability, but a unique set of strengths, Powell said, and the University has an opportunity to help students develop those strengths.
She said it’s important that UNC allows students to include and name rurality as one of the many factors that have made up their life experience.
Despite the difficulties of adjusting to life at UNC, Murray said that coming from a town like Millers Creek has helped her grow and stay humble through her time at college. She isn’t ashamed to hail from a small town.
“I wouldn’t really change where I’m from,” she said.
Some days are tougher than others. On those days, she said, it helps to take a step back and ground herself.
“I always have to remind myself, 'I'm here and other people aren't. I got accepted and there's someone else who was wanting to go to Carolina and didn't get in, so why not soak up all the opportunities?” Murray said. “... I just have to keep reminding myself, 'I'm here. I'm doing it. I belong here.'”
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