This entry is a continuation of two other entries. If you have not read the other entries, you can find them here:
Stepping Outside the Box
To say that I had stepped outside my comfort zone upon my arrival to the small college in Southeast Kentucky that would be my home for four months would be a gross understatement. I had come from an urban campus of 5,000 undergraduates- 25% of whom were Jewish and many of whom were from Long Island. I now found myself on a rural campus of about 800 undergraduates, presumably the only Jew for 200 miles.
My home campus had co-ed dorms and some co-ed bathrooms, 24 hour visitation, and while technically a dry campus, there was plenty of drinking going on behind closed doors. The college at which the Appalachian Semester Program was based was located in a dry county, with an all female and an all male dorm. There were strict visitation hours and if someone of the opposite sex was in your room, the door had to remain open and a 60 watt light bulb had to be turned on at all time. (Under those conditions, I think the only thing turned on was the light bulb, which was probably the point.)
There were 12 of us participating in the Appalachian Semester Program (ASP) that semester from schools throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Mid-West. Some of us felt more at home than others. Despite feeling like a fish out of water, I did the best I could to gain as much as I could from this semester long, once in a formal education experience.
And what an experience it was. Under the tutelage of our trusty professor who doubled as our tour guide, we explored Appalachia (in a 12 passenger van) from corner to corner. We traveled North to Cincinnati for a conference on Urban Appalachia. We ventured South to Knoxville, TN and visited the Highlander Center, Great Smokey Mountain National Park, and the TVA Dam.
In Southeastern KY, our group visited a coal mine, a snake handling church, community organizations, farms, schools, and local festivals. We even crashed (sort of) a family reunion and were welcomed with open arms by our hosts. I learned to quilt, weave, and log roll. I even took a clog dancing class. I could write an entire book covering all of the amazing places we saw, and the fascinating people we met. It was the ultimate in experiential education.
The experience that had the greatest impact on me was my internship. We had the choice of several internship sites. My roommate (a social work major at her regular school) interned with the local social services office and got to accompany social workers on home visits. Another in my cohort shadowed a mid-wife as she provided prenatal care, and performed home deliveries back in “the hollers.”
The internship that caught my interest (much to my own surprise) was being a classroom helper in a 2-3 grade combined classroom at the local, public elementary school. We had visited the school one day to hear the father of a girl in that classroom talk about his experience as a coal miner. In addition to describing his job, he talked about the difference between the unionized and non-unionized coal mines; the importance of health insurance (since so many coal miners have respiratory issues at some point); and getting caught in a mine collapse that he was lucky to be rescued from. He talked about his hopes for his daughter’s future – that he wanted her to have the choice to go to college and be able to make her own decisions about what she wanted to be when she grew up.
We also spent some time that day interacting with the kids, some of whom came from extremely poor and underprivileged families. They were a curious, energetic bunch, and couldn’t get enough of the attention that we were dishing out. Maybe it was their hopeful, innocent faces. Maybe it was their need for extra resources and hands in the classroom. I’m not sure what it was, precisely. All I knew was that despite not really feeling all that drawn to children in the past, and despite having no interest in pursuing a career in education those kids had stolen my heart. I was where I needed to be.
I still think about those kids (who must now be in their early to mid twenties). I think about Joe, the little boy who I tutored in math, who was just so grateful for the one on one time. I think about Heather, one of five siblings who were living in separate foster homes. A couple in Oklahoma had agreed to adopt all five kids and then, for reasons I am unaware of, backed out at the list minute leaving Heather and her siblings devastated.
I remember one little girl who got sick during the school day and had to lay on a cot in the back of the room because her house had no phone and there was no way to let her parents know she was ill. I remember a couple of the 2nd and 3rd grade girls becoming Aunts that year, because their 14-year-old sisters had just had babies. I remember Hannah, the daughter of the coal miner, who wrote me a letter after I’d gone, telling me she had named her puppy after me.
Mostly, I remember their teacher, Linda, who was doing an amazing job (with limited resources) of giving these kids a chance to choose their own destinies. She told me that many of the kids would never leave the state, or possibly even the county and she wanted them to understand that “Kentucky is not the center of the universe.” She wanted them to be proud of where they were from, but also be aware of the wonders that the world had to offer. Linda’s classroom was filled with books that provided her students a window to the world. She felt strongly that for a child to have a chance to change their circumstances, they needed to see that other options existed.
Linda taught me as much as she taught those kids. I learned that if Kentucky was not the center of the universe, than neither was New York or DC or even the United States as a whole. I was also learning that a career in education and a career in justice were more closely linked than I had ever thought- that how a system of education is implemented has the ability to level the playing field, propel kids ahead, or leave them in the dust.
Through the ASP, I was witnessing an America that I had only read about in the newspaper and text books. I was seeing the impact of poverty on education and geographical access to various kind of resources in Kentucky, but knew that these are issues that are prevalent throughout the U.S. I was learning that book learning is helpful, but there is no substitute for learning through experience. I had come into this “domestic study program” after three years of college thinking I had at least some answers but found I really had no answers at all, only questions.
This left me wiser in some ways, but I was in no way closer to deciding what I wanted to do with my life. I still didn’t want to be a teacher. Honestly, after spending so much time with those kids, I didn’t think my heart could take the emotional toll of getting so attached to so many children. But I do understand better now why so many of my friends have become teachers, and have come to truly respect the impact they have on so many young lives.
Before I left Kentucky, I went to talk to the Career Services director at the school I was visiting. She helped me to isolate the values that I wanted to focus on in my career. I was originally attracted to a career in the field of justice because I have always felt that people should be held accountable for their actions and behaviors. What I loved best about my Resident Assistant position back at AU was the one on one counseling I got to do, and planning programs that introduced students to new ideas or made them think outside the box. And I knew that taking myself out of my own comfort zone had raised my level of awareness, and consciousness about the world around me, even if I had sometimes felt a little uncomfortable in the process.
The Career Services Director told me about her graduate degree in College Student Personnel Services. She liked working with college students because they were old enough to be able to articulate what they wanted or believed, but they also flexible enough to consider new ideas. College students are learning about being accountable for their decisions and behavior, and many of them find themselves outside of their comfort zone when they leave home for the first time to pursue their degree. She thought it would be a good fit for me too and encouraged me to look into some programs.
I started my own research and the following fall found myself enrolled in the Higher Education Administration Masters program at Michigan State University, which led to my first professional job as a Residence Hall Director (I could write a book about that experience too), and then six great years as an Academic Adviser. So I ended up working in education after all – higher education. I even taught a couple of college classes, though teaching is definitely not my passion. Ironically, the ultimate teaching job, parenthood, has taken me out of the work force for a little while, but I hope, that once I return I can jump back in to my career in higher education.
My time in Appalachia combined with my Graduate School studies helped me to define the values and belief system by which I choose to live my life. For the three of you out there that want to hear about that belief system, you are in luck! In Part 3 (the final installment of this blog topic, I promise) find out why we are really not all that different from each other, why we are all a little like those little Russian nesting dolls, and why grown ups should play more truth and dare.