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What Urbanites Need to Know About Rural Students

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

After transferring to Barnard this past fall, it’s safe to say that I’ve entered a new world since coming here from a small town in southeast Alaska. Barnard doesn’t post their numbers, but only 11% of CC/SEAS freshmen are from rural areas, so we ruralites are definitely a rarity here on our city campus. My urban studies class has proven to me that I know nothing about cities, and watching the HBO series The Sex Lives of College Girls (which featured a character from rural Arizona navigating life at an elite East Coast college) has made me realize that my childhood is more of an anomaly here than I could’ve ever anticipated! So here are some things that I wish my peers from cities, suburbs, and even large towns knew about what it’s like to come here from a rural area. Also, this is just a personal reflection, so please read this Spectator article for a little more on the experiences of rural students at Columbia.

First, I wish other students knew that we aren’t used to having a subway, or even a bus system, to take us where we need to go. We drive cars back home because we have to, so navigating public transportation is usually very new to us. I’ve definitely become more comfortable with the subway, but for months I was incredibly grossed out by it and I still sometimes wish that I could take a drive alone, singing along to my blasting music with the windows down! Of course, I don’t love all the death and pollution that cars cause, but that’s just how I’m used to getting around in a country that is not particularly innovative with public transit (nor extends much funding for it). 

A common practice for many people who live a distance away from grocery stores and other essential businesses is to “stock up” on goods, and I’ve certainly carried on doing that here. While it seems like most students keep their pantries and fridges relatively empty, I like to always have the basic staples in my apartment, even if I don’t need to. After going nineteen years without the conveniences of a city, my instinct is to always  fill up an entire bag every time I’m at the store even though I now live within a few blocks of everything I need. So if you see one of us buying dry rice and frozen berries instead of chips and perishable snacks, know that it’s because we’re used to having to make a long trek for basic food items, not because we’re hoarders!

Part of the culture shock I experienced when I first moved to New York was the sheer size. Yes, I knew the city’s population beforehand, but nothing could have prepared me for how overwhelming it would be. In my hometown, I don’t think I’ve run a single errand without bumping into someone I knew, but here I can take a walk down Broadway and not see a single familiar face. Living in a building with hundreds of other people has been strange and certainly reinforces the “small fish in a big pond” notion. Thus, please be understanding if we don’t want to take the subway downtown every weekend night and instead just want to stay in!

To add on to my earlier point about the conveniences of the city, I also want to express how luxurious it is here. Although you might not think the ability to take a train and be in Boston a few hours later is anything special, it’s a huge deal for us! For me, there were no “weekend getaways” growing up due to my town’s isolation and the fact that the only way to get in and out was by boat or plane. Additionally, those of you who grew up going  to large or specialized schools had a completely different K-12 educational experience than we did. Cities (and especially suburbs) tend to have much better funding for their public schools, so most of us didn’t have the pre-college guidance counselors or AP and IB programs that you did. The moral of the story here is that you need to be patient and understanding when comparing educational backgrounds with us.

Regarding our hometowns, please stop making blanket assumptions about them. While they’re not perfect and certainly have different politics than what you’re used to, we don’t appreciate you calling us “white trash” and “rednecks,” making fun of the working class people that we grew up with, and generally acting as if our homes are hellholes when you’ve never even been there. We know your expectations of where we’re from are probably low compared to where you’re from, but please just don’t talk about them in a disrespectful manner or make stereotypical assessments. Coming to elite schools like Barnard can make us feel very alienated from our communities, making us feel as if we’ve betrayed them by choosing the “intellectual life” over everything else. While you might never have dreamed of it, I sometimes feel embarrassed telling people from back home where I go to college.

In addition, we are not used to being in the liberal echo chambers that most cities are and might end up playing devil’s advocate in debates just because we have experiences interacting with people who have those perspectives. I was recently chatting with a fellow rural student about our past friendships with conservatives and how that’s just what you have to do when you live in a place like we did. In high school, I had several friends whose opinions differed from mine, and we just didn’t talk about those opinions when we hung out, which is much different than the constant social and political dialogue on campus. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all, but one of the main reasons I don’t picture myself living in New York forever is that I need to have opposing perspectives within reach to engage with.

Finally, the city is incredibly expensive and dirty. I long for some truly fresh air, to see dogs not spending their entire days in concrete jungles, to not have to own a million different outfits, and to have a moment in which I can feel a little less overwhelmed and a little more at home. We’re so happy to be here but please, give us time to adjust.

Stella Tallmon

Columbia Barnard '24

Hello everyone! I'm a sophomore political science major at Barnard from Juneau, Alaska, and I intend to study law and comparative politics. I also love swimming, hiking, comedies, and herbal tea!
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