Editor’s note: As part of a series about students from rural areas, we spoke to Janet Barkdoll ’22 from Shoreham, VT about her experience at Swarthmore and the lessons she carries with her from her rural upbringing. Some responses have been edited for brevity or clarity.
Tell me a little bit about where you are from. What is your hometown like? What was your high school like?
I am from Shoreham, Vermont, which is a small town of about 1,200 people on the western edge of the state near Lake Champlain. Shoreham is mostly fields and woods with houses and farms tucked throughout. Our “main street” is a stretch of road with the post office, public library, town office, elementary school, two churches, and a few houses. We have two
annual community gatherings: The Strawberry Festival and the Shoreham Apple Fest. Our neighbors aren’t just the house next door, but also the houses within a few mile radius.
For us, going to town means going to Middlebury (a town of about 8,000 people) which is where we go for all our errands, grocery shopping, and high school. My high school has about 130 students per grade, who come from Middlebury and the six surrounding towns. When it came to college, choosing my classes and applying were things that I did myself with help from parents and mentors in the broader community.
The Shoreham Library
Why and how did you choose Swarthmore?
I was lucky enough to visit campus as a senior in high school and go on a campus tour. My tour guide studied economics and played lacrosse (which are two things I wasn’t very interested in) so I did not expect to relate very much to his personal experience on campus. I was surprised to find so many parts of his Swarthmore experience that interested me even when our academic interests differed. I remember standing outside of Trotter Hall listening to him describe office hours with his economics professor and thinking to myself, “I want to get to know my professors like that!” This also showed me how the Swarthmore community is made up of a variety of students who are all happy to talk to one another, even if at first we have different interests!
Second, I wanted to attend a college that would push me to grow as a person and as a student. Reading through the website and Admissions materials, I really got a sense that Swarthmore would ask me to stretch and challenge myself beyond who I was when applying. My experience here has confirmed this. I have grown a lot as a person and student in the last three years. This fall as a senior, I have found myself learning from experiences that happened freshman year, which makes me excited to experience the ways I will continue to learn from Swarthmore even after graduating.
For the “how” of choosing Swarthmore, I knew that I wanted a small liberal arts college where I could have close relationships with my professors. When I visited, it was the beginning of the semester, but students seemed so at home on campus. They were walking around chatting in groups instead of looking at their phones. As the fall went on, I really appreciated how the Admissions materials and emails I got from them were so reflective of the character of the school.
What unique experiences and perspectives do you think you bring to Swarthmore as a rural student?
Growing up with friends and classmates whose parents worked in all different parts of the community gave me an awareness of the different roles that keep a community running. From this background, I bring to campus an awareness of the people and processes that are maybe more behind the scenes on campus, but that make it possible for us to do all that we do as students here. I find myself thinking about the immense effort required of so many people to maintain campus buildings and to feed 1,600+ students every day.
Growing up, my brother and I were expected to be independent and to think critically, because failing to mention a funny smell in the barn or a rattling noise on the tractor could turn into a dangerous or expensive situation. We had to actively address a broken fence, or an injured animal. I think this has helped me navigate my course material, but also the way I approach potential issues to our physical campus as well.
A distant view of the town of Shoreham
Why do you feel it’s important that Swarthmore admits more students from rural areas and small towns?
I did not realize how few people in the USA live in rural and small town areas until I came to Swarthmore and realized that the environment I grew up with was so unique. I think it’s important to include students from a range of locations and settings because where you grow up shapes who you are and how you think. Learning in a community that is diverse in multiple dimensions gives us a better understanding of each other’s experiences. Swarthmore prepares us to be leaders in our various communities and to engage in work that impacts others.
I also think that those of us who grew up on farms and in rural areas have a unique perspective on climate change, food production, weather, and agriculture. (Which is another unique perspective I bring to Swarthmore.) When I was in high school, my math modeling team worked on a food waste question. When we got to the national finals of the competition, we were the only rural high school. Our answer differed from those of the other teams with regard to composting and feeding food waste to livestock. I think that we were the only students in the finals who actually had a sense of the mechanics and feasibility of composting because of our background.
What is one or a couple things you wish your Swarthmore friends could know about being from a rural area?
This might be silly, but when I tell people that I have goats, sheep and chickens at home, a lot of people say “Oh, so you live on a farm?” No, our animals are for personal use! I have a sense of what farming for a living is like, but farming is not my family’s livelihood. I have great respect for farmers. I feel fortunate to have grown up with such an understanding of the work that goes into farming as well as access to and an appreciation for local food and goods.
Something else about rural and small town areas that people don’t always realize is they are often extremely socioeconomically and culturally diverse. Furthermore, like urban areas, rural areas also face challenges of food deserts, poverty, lack of access to jobs, lack of affordable housing, substance abuse, and even high rates of mental health crises. The needs and desires of people in rural areas are not that different from the rest of the country. Our access to resources can be limited because of our distance from areas with high population densities. We still care about the world around us, work hard, and build strong communities.
Janet’s sheep with goats in the background
How do you describe Swarthmore to friends and family back home? What’s it like going back home after being at Swarthmore?
Food and family are the two largest parts of going home for me. There are so many foods that we get locally in Vermont that I just can’t get anywhere else. We buy our milk and cream from the farm store at the local dairy, we get maple syrup from neighbors who own a maple farm down the road, and we buy meat and hay from another neighboring family. You can’t get Monument Farms milk outside of Addison County!
My family spends a lot of time at home together and so that is something I look forward to on break. I get to see our goats, sheep, and cats and help my mom out with the chores. She usually saves cleaning out the chicken house for my brother and me to help with when we get home.
My friends know that I go to college near Philadelphia. My situation is unique for many rural kids, because Middlebury College is in our community, so many people understand what a small liberal arts college is.
Where do you see yourself after Swarthmore? Do you see yourself going back home or do you see yourself going somewhere more urban?
Immediately after graduation, I see myself in a more urban area (somewhere within a day’s travel of Philadelphia) partly because of wanting to be closer to my grandparents and partly because these areas have more job opportunities. I want to have flexibility as I figure out what kind of work I want to do and more job opportunities will give me more options. Vermont will always be home for me. I miss living there and I see myself living there again one day. Regardless of whether I am currently living there or not, being from a rural agricultural community is a fundamental part of who I am, how I pronounce certain words, and how I live. My time at Swarthmore has helped me understand myself better and reflect on what my rural background means to me.