Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

Becoming to Remain: Community College Students and Post-Secondary Pursuits in Central Appalachia

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

Becoming to Remain: Community College Students and Post-Secondary Pursuits in Central Appalachia

Article excerpt

Using data gathered from students attending Southeast Community and Technical College in Harlan County, Kentucky, this article discusses how a commitment to place informs and shapes rural students' decisions around post-secondary education, career, and residence. Though some students connected advanced education with rural outmigration, other students discussed their post-secondary training in relation to local contexts, connecting their education to improved quality of life, both for their families and their rural communities. Their narratives regarding the purpose and application of higher education in Central Appalachia add to the continuing discussion of rural students' rationales to stay or leave their home communities, and by what means they achieve these ends. While some students applied their advanced degrees towards transfer out of the area, others used their degrees towards local transformative ends. By highlighting Labaree's (1997) conception of the citizenry ends of education, this study complicates Corbett (2007) and other studies that attach advanced degree attainment with rural outmigration.

Chris: And the people who stay-why do they stay?

Sara: Because there is a mountain witch and she won't let you leave. And when you do leave, she'll make you come back.

Chris: Does she have a name?

Sara: I don't know...I guess it's where your heart is. It's anybody-wherever they're born, you know...it's where their heart is-you'll leave and you'll come back.1

The above excerpt is taken from an interview with an Appalachian college student discussing her pursuit of higher education and her attachment to home. Sara was not alone in discussing this commitment to the local as it related to her higher education goals. Though she attributed the need to stay in the area to other-worldly influences, many students attending Harlan County's Southeast Community and Technical College emphasized more worldly factors-the push and pull of higher education as it related to their own, and their communities' futures. This paper focuses on a rural community college in Appalachia, Kentucky, a region often described as valuing place and people (Billings & Blee, 2004; Caudill, 1963; Chenoweth & Galliher, 2004). Many students understood and articulated the need for advanced degrees, some as a way to leave, but importantly, some as a way to remain in the region.

Alan Peshkin's ethnography Places of Memory (1997) described the tension between the secular agenda of mobility and individualism advanced in the schools and the Pueblo's commitment to tribal identity and spiritual attachment to the land represented by the kiva. He highlighted this dichotomy as a process of "becoming" or "remaining". In contrast to the public school, the kiva promoted community values regarding place and Pueblo group identity. Such values, promoted by the kiva, were often in direct opposition to the values promoted by the school system. Peshkin's interviews with school administrators and teachers reflected their hopes of eventually assimilating the Pueblo students to Anglo culture through the acquisition of advanced degrees requiring outmigration. Such hopes starkly illustrated the conflict between the values of formal schooling and the native community. Pueblo students rejected these values through continued high drop-out rates, failing grades, and a general disinterest in pursuing college after high school. Peshkin portrays this as the tension between becoming and remaining.

The school as an institution of becoming, and the kiva, as an institution of remaining, are antagonistic, as are the cultures from which these parallel institutions arise...the Whiteman's school lies beyond Pueblo prayers and songs...therefore beyond remaining a Pueblo person (p. 114).

Peshkin highlights how commitment to place can be in tension with commitments to secondary and post-secondary education. The thread running through Peshkin's work continues in other studies. …

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