Commentary: Young, Black and Attending College in Small Town, USA

I had always dreamed about leaving Richmond, Ky., the small town in which I was raised. I dreamed of pulling myself out of the sinking sand of poverty, drug addictions and an overall absence of people who looked like me. It seemed like the faster I moved, the harder it became to find a sturdy foundation and a face like mine to pull me out.

I am the face of Small Town, USA. I ran out of there kicking and screaming to the University of Louisville for my undergraduate degree, just to find myself right back after graduation in the city I had run away from. As I now find myself working in higher education in a rural setting not too different from the one I knew as a youngster, I look at the African-American student population and those students in similar settings around the U.S. and realize that there is a desperate need for support and community for these Black collegiate students.

Imagine coming to a campus and realizing that, outside those walls of higher education, you may often have to travel 20 miles or more to either get hair products or get your hair done. You also may have to travel quite a distance in order to get a sense of connection with your own culture. For students who come from more diverse settings or even other rural settings, this still can be a daunting reality that often interferes with making the connection necessary for a successful college career.

How do we keep these Black students from slipping through the cracks of higher education in a setting where they already feel isolated? Greater community development through cultural programming, organizational funding, and academic support is essential to creating a welcoming environment where students of color can prosper.

I know of specific incidents wherein minority students were made to feel isolated either on campus or in the community. For example, one student from Atlanta who went to school in a small town was told by people at two beauty shops that they “didn’t feel comfortable” serving her. This student ended up returning home to Atlanta. Yet, in another case, someone I mentored told me how she felt uncomfortable in her classes because she was the only African-American and quite often the professor would ask her questions that essentially made her the “spokesperson for the Black population.” Meanwhile, many minority students on campuses in small or rural communities often complain about the lack of Black faculty and staff members and the lack of support from campus leadership for events and conferences that they think are important.

Offering minority students scholarships is not enough. Colleges also must take into account that, while the money might get minority students to the campus, the scholarships do not guarantee that the students will stay there—support from the school and support from the community are necessary.

Retaining Black students in higher education, especially in rural settings or small towns, needs to be a diligent, culturally sensitive effort that allows for greater support from campus leadership. There are several ways to make minorities feel welcomed on campus, including supporting Black faculty/staff and having the campus support multicultural initiatives. Students pay attention to who comes out to support their programs. It should be an institution’s goal to create an environment that allows African-Americans to feel that they are a part of the university.

There are various steps that small-town higher education institutions can take to help minority students feel more at home, including developing resource guides of stores in surrounding communities and providing diversity training for staff and personnel.

In higher education, we often forget about diversity issues that affect people in rural and small-town settings.

Higher education has a void in small-town settings that is shown through retention and graduation rates. Creating community where there is none is not an easy task, but it takes creativity, effort and a realization that the old ideas need to be replaced with new ones. When minority students attend college in rural or small towns that lack adequate support and mentorship, it sets a precedent that assimilating into the mainstream is more important than diversity.

Scholars debate the role of higher education. Some think that colleges and university should shape their institutional character into one that is innovative and elastic and caters to diversity. Others think that a traditional, direct use of the mission statement is essential in preserving the institutional foundations. This is a realistic battle for schools within a small town or rural setting that want to sustain the values enjoyed by that environment.

With growing diversity in institutions, it is time for higher education administrators to develop a fresh approach to working with Black students. Developing a feel of community—when outside the school walls a sense of community for these students may be non-existent—is essential to enhancing the mindset that African-Americans are valuable members of the university.

I used to think that being in a small town was impeding my ability to enhance my success, but the opportunities that I have gained from living and working in Small Town, USA, have allowed me to see that enhancing the community experiences for Black students is possible through support, action and cultural appreciation. This will allow people of all colors to learn from each other. D

Jillian Watts is a student in the human services: student personnel services in higher education M.A. program at Eastern Kentucky University. She is an educational coordinator for educational talent search at Eastern Kentucky University.