It’s no secret that many students at most liberal arts colleges (like Swarthmore) come from suburban and urban areas. However, rural students have a voice on campus. I talked to Tara Cannon ’20 about her experiences getting into Swarthmore as a rural student, and how she has used her education at Swarthmore to push back against stigma towards people from rural areas.
EW: Tell me a little bit about where you are from. What is your hometown like? What was your high school like?
TC: I’m from Milton, Delaware, which is about 10 miles inland from a beach which is a popular vacation spot for a lot of people. It’s a small town, the Dogfish Head [beer] factory is there, so a lot of people that work for the brewery live there. It’s mostly people that are, for example, teachers, people that work in the restaurant industry, and people that own small businesses. It wasn’t like the idealized versions of small towns that you see on TV—but we knew a lot of our neighbors and I could walk around and feel safe. My siblings and I used to walk to the library, we’d go to the park—stuff like that.
I went to high school at a technical school probably about 20 to 25 minutes away from my house. I tell people I went to a technical school and they’re like—‘Oh that’s so weird!’ but my high school was one of the better public high schools in the area. It definitely had decent academics, but obviously it didn’t have all the AP classes and all the academics that a lot of the prep school students [at Swarthmore] took. I took a couple AP classes and I also learned how to build things because my area was carpentry, so I learned about construction and how to build furniture—it was a lot of fun. I also had another training area which was athletics and sports medicine so I learned a lot and got trained in a lot of things.
But yeah, my high school was literally out in the middle of the cornfield somewhere. A lot of my classmates lived on farms, drove trucks and listened to Luke Bryan [she laughs]—so there’s definitely a fair amount of that. When I left I had certification to work on a job site in construction as well as a physical therapy aid, so you can go out and get jobs after high school but there still was an opportunity for higher levels of education. A lot of my friends now are in college, most of them at the University of Delaware. At the same time, a lot of my classmates did go straight on to work, I have friends that are working in auto-shops and as cosmetologists, and for them that was always what they wanted to do. So there is definitely a balance of what people do after high school.
EW: Why and how did you choose Swarthmore?
TC: I kind of visited on a whim. I was looking at other small liberal arts colleges in the area because I wanted to play Lacrosse Division III. My cousins both went here in the 90’s and my uncle also coached football here back in the day. So it was a school that was kind of on my radar but not really—my dad and I just stopped by, because why not. We toured the campus and I really, really liked it. It seemed like a true liberal arts approach to learning, which is something I really appreciated because I’m pre-med and I didn’t want to come in and take solely STEM classes because I feel like I have so many other interests that I wanted to cultivate a bit more. I felt that would give me a more balanced understanding of the world and medicine, no matter what I want to do.
In terms of how I got here: I honestly have no idea, divine intervention? [she laughs] The first time I took the SAT, my scores weren’t awesome. Lucky for me, my aunt used to be an SAT tutor so she helped me improve my score. Obviously SAT tutoring is really expensive and not really accessible to everybody; I wasn’t gonna drop dollar signs on SAT tutoring so that was what helped me learn how to take the test. The whole standardized testing aspect was really stressful for me, especially because I didn’t think that the resources I had available really lent themselves to me getting the SAT scores that some of the people [at Swarthmore] have gotten. With that being said, I feel like I was really fortunate with my education in high school. I had good teachers and I had a lot of opportunities. The state allowed me to have the opportunity to take classes outside of my high school, especially when the classes that were there weren’t super challenging or intellectually engaging.
EW: What unique experiences and perspectives do you think you bring to Swarthmore as a rural student?
TC: We actually read this amazing book in one of my seminars this week by Eli Clare about how being from a rural area has really shaped the way he approaches activism and the way he approaches being queer. While I’m straight, I really resonated with his ideas in that I am from a rural area but I don’t necessarily identify as a working class American. My parents are in education; they both work in public schools, and we are pretty much middle class. However, a lot of people around us were working class, so I guess I understand those people a little bit differently than my classmates do, being from urban areas. Also, I feel like coming here I realized that many people have a lot of negative sentiments towards people from the working class, the farms and the rural areas, and I’m able to say ‘Hey, these are actually people too.’ I feel like the narrative can be very one sided towards these [people who don’t come from rural areas] because that’s a lot of who we’re going to school with. I’ve slowly learned to come out of shell a little bit and challenge and push back against some of those sentiments. Especially with regards to my personal experiences existing in this liminal space between being a privileged white moderately progressive student from this institution, but at the same time being from a place where people are conservative, they’re working class and they’re considered ‘red-necks’ so to speak. I think that the negative sentiments that are harbored by people here are just because they don’t understand, and I feel like while it’s not my job to make them understand, I still have found ways to push back in respectful ways. Being an anthropology major, I’ve been able to both question the way I do things and question why other people think they do.
EW: Why do you feel it’s important that Swarthmore admits more students from rural areas and small towns?
TC: I think that is so important to have a diversity of people here. Especially with regards to the fact that a lot of the people who have the access, the opportunities, and the knowledge of schools like Swarthmore are primarily [people from well-resourced metropolitan areas].
A lot of my classmates in high school chose the colleges they did because they were trying to get jobs and it was all about job security. So when I said I was going to a liberal arts college it was like ‘Oh okay cool you wanna be a social science major, what are you gonna do with that?’ While I think that’s a really valid question, I also think a lot of people don’t realize that the liberal arts can really expand your thinking and understanding of different career fields. I feel like a lot of people here are very into academia. They are planning on going to grad school after this, they’re planning on being college professors and things like that which is cool. But at the same time, people also need to realize that the liberal arts can also be really helpful if you’re going into the workforce in any capacity.
Also, a lot of times I’m sitting in class and people are all agreeing with each other, which is all well and good but you don’t learn anything from agreeing with anyone all the time. So I think that there’s definitely room for more voices that don’t necessarily agree with what’s the norm.
EW: Speaking of life after college, where do you see yourself after Swarthmore? Do you see yourself going back home or do you see yourself going somewhere more urban?
TC: Well, I do have to get a job eventually, I suppose. [she laughs] As of right now, I’m still a sophomore. I’m thinking about the future—but it’s in the future—it’s far away. I really am interested in a major in Medical Anthropology and Spanish, so I’m interested in helping under-served populations of people and understanding the medical system and the ways in which it is failing these under-served populations of people. I potentially will take a few years off after Swarthmore and take time to study for the MCAT and do some sort of AmeriCorps program like Teach for America, or join the Peace Corps, or do some sort of non-profit work. Then I’d potentially go to medical school with the intent of either working in emergency medicine or something OBGYN-related. I hope to serve some sort of population that doesn’t have access to good quality health care and try to change that on a smaller scale—I realize that I’m one person. There’s also the potential of maybe getting an advanced degree in anthropology at the same time, if I could get into one of those programs [she laughs] because anthropology is something that I think is really cool and really important.
EW: How do you describe Swarthmore to friends and family back home? What’s it like going back home after being at Swarthmore?
TC: I get two types of reactions which are: ‘What’s Swarthmore?’ or ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so smart!’ and I’m like ‘No, I’m not.” [she laughs] For most people who don’t know what Swarthmore is, I just tell them it’s a small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia, and leave it at that. [she laughs]
Going home after was kind of weird because my family is kind of conservative, and after being in this very liberal, progressive environment it was kind of hard to balance that identity with understanding my conservative and Christian family. I feel like through my studies of Anthropology I’ve been able to have really awesome conversations with my parents and challenge both what I’m learning here as well as teaching them stuff, too, so that’s been really cool. I’ve been sending my mom books every week and being like ‘You need to read this! It’s so good!” It’s definitely strengthened my relationship with my family in the respect that I feel like I can have really cool engaging discussions with them. But I obviously I put away my college vocabulary, because I’m like ‘You sound ridiculous.’ [she laughs]
EW: What is one or a couple things you wish your Swarthmore friends could know about being from a rural area?
TC: That yes, I do have fun when I go home! Everything closes really early, but you learn to be creative and enjoy natural resources a little bit more. For example, going to the state parks and doing things like that. I tell my friends that our bowling alleys close at 10 p.m. and that’s the only thing to do in the winter, and they’re just like “…what?”
Also, just not to generalize entire groups of people as I know so many are apt to do. I think that there’s tons of value in working class people and sometimes people slip into the vilification of these groups of people, even if it’s not overt or intentional, so just try to understand people, essentially.
Oh and country music is not horrible, please just give it a chance – it’s fun!