Rural and First Generation Students


There are many government definitions that are used to describe rural vs. urban areas. Tennessee, for example, has five clear urban centers (red), but in 70 of Tennessee’s 95 counties over 50% of the population is in a rural area. An easier way to see it is to look at a color-coded map with green being the most rural and red being urban. It is clear that much of the state is rural. That means many of the state’s college students come from rural areas.

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In addition to students from rural areas, 25% of students come from low-income and are first-generation college students. What does it mean to be a first-generation college student that is also from a rural area? As I sat in a session on teaching and learning, I could not help but identify with what I was hearing. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I had someone that could routinely answer questions about college issues including study habits, hints on writing, the importance of office hours, and even scholarships. It was also the first time I wasn’t working full-time and going to school so it was probably the combination of the two that made graduate school exciting.

First generation students frequently do not have parents that can explain to them what it is like in a classroom. They may not understand that the money the student must borrow to attend college is worth it if they have a better life growing forward. The data is clear that career options are better, they start off better, and they make more money across their lifespan. If you borrow the price of an expensive car to pay for an education it doesn’t start depreciating the day you drive it off the lot.

The day is gone when the goal of the English and science departments is to weed out students and reduce the numbers. Most faculty now consider it their responsibility to help all students to succeed and recognize their role in lifting students out of poverty through education. Most universities now have early alert programs in place for faculty to notify advisors when students start missing classes or don’t do well on assignments. It is these programs that help with student success.

Yet, what surprised me the most was that those students who get involved early in clubs, Greek life, athletics, or other extracurricular activities are the ones least likely to drop out. It left me with this question, what about the students that must spend much of their free time working? How do they engage with the campus community? What can we do to keep them in school?

What I don’t know sometimes surprises me and every once and a while my own biases shock me. Maybe I had to work so many hours as an undergraduate that I’ve held on to that envy all of these years, but kudos to the fraternities, sororities, athletics, intramural sports, cultural centers, and faith-based groups on campus that reach out and get students involved. Kudos to all of those who made sure a friend graduated. Kudos to every professor that offered a little extra help.

“Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul.” – Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach

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