Editor’s note: As part of a series about students from rural areas, we spoke to Daxon Shackelford ’22 from Muldrow, OK about his experience at Swarthmore and the lessons he carries with him from his 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?
Aside from the Sonic Drive-In, which is in pretty much every small Oklahoma town, Muldrow consists of two stop lights, a church, and the high school. Even though it sits just off of I-40, if you blink, you’ll miss the entire town and never be the wiser. The town’s population is around 3,500 people, and most people work at the chicken plant in town or own farmland – it is the exemplification of a working class town.
My graduating class is just as small, consisting only of around 100 other students. Academic and extracurricular opportunities were severely lacking, and aside from Friday Night Lights – the weekly school football game – there wasn’t much for offered on a community level. I love my town, but poverty has wreaked havoc on it – well over half of my class lived below the poverty line, and over a quarter are severely food insecure. If you didn’t play sports or an instrument, or weren’t planning on going into agricultural studies, you were more or less out of luck for “things to do.”
Why and how did you choose Swarthmore?
I first learned about Swarthmore when I was in middle school, when my mother showed me the packet for the College and told me about their old friends and colleagues who received their undergraduate education here. The packet displayed a tight knit community, a potent sense of intellectual curiosity, and great financial aid: all of which set the bar very high. Ever since then, Swarthmore was my number one choice, all the way until I got accepted in the first round of Early Decision.
However, there was a particular moment at Swatstruck (the admitted students program I attended in the spring) that let me know I made the right decision. I was sitting in one of the lectures provided for prospective students, centered around John Milton’s Paradise Lost and what kind of fruit the “forbidden fruit” actually is. Coming from an underfunded school district, this deep approach to education showed me that I could find exactly what I was looking for: a place that fostered learning for the sake of learning. I remember sitting in the classroom and realizing the sheer potential of an educational institution like Swarthmore for producing life-changing experiences and opportunities, both inside and outside the classroom. Having spent 4 years here, I can say that I was absolutely right.
What unique experiences and perspectives do you think you bring to Swarthmore as a rural student?
My hometown was devastated by the 2008 financial collapse, and this was exacerbated by the opioid crisis – people often don’t see college as a way out. I come from an area where people are often denied access to higher education, and this lack of generational motivation is so ingrained in Muldrow’s culture that college attendance is put on the back burner, if prioritized at all. Families simply cannot afford it, and as such it becomes harder and harder for a new generation to attend university.
This is not an uncommon problem: stigmatization of higher education is prevalent in certain facets of every community. The problem gets even worse when the internal turmoil of rural communities like mine becomes normalized. Hurtful labels, like “deplorable”, “bumpkin”, or “hick”, exemplify the disconnect that exists between rural communities and higher education, which Swarthmore is actively seeking to bridge. I am always trying to bring the positive side of these communities out in conversations, because the low-income and rural students who are at Swarthmore are some of the few souls that will care most about the issues facing their hometowns.
Why do you feel it’s important that Swarthmore admits more students from rural areas and small towns?
I think anytime someone comes to Swarthmore from a rural community, they bring a life experience and pace of living that counterbalances broader society’s rather quick pace, in terms of daily happenings and broader evolution of ideals. I am a strong believer that agricultural areas, small towns, and rural communities have a plethora of life experiences that are often left behind by the urbanized world: the “country” life is full of community connectedness and working class experience, both of which are crucial to the health of any institution. These features are not exclusive to small towns, but small towns do often produce persons predisposed to them. This is why it’s so important for rural and small town folk, especially lower-income or first generation rural students, to fight their way into spaces which would otherwise forget them almost entirely, if for no other reason than for our future communities and families to see the fruits of the hard labor they have invested in us.
Where do you see yourself after Swarthmore? Do you see yourself going back home or do you see yourself going somewhere more urban?
I will definitely go back and be closer to home at some point – but not before I go to law school. In fact, after having some poor experiences with my town’s court system, particularly regarding lack of legal protection from state sanctioned violence toward low income residents, I have always felt the need to return and do what I can. I will definitely live in urban areas throughout parts of my life, as I feel like it is inevitable given the things I want to do. But I will always feel most at home in a place where population density is low and the nearest Walmart is 20 minutes away.
How do you describe Swarthmore to friends and family back home? What’s it like going back home after being at Swarthmore?
The culture shock is truly immense. While Muldrow is “unique” in its own right, Swarthmore brings a completely different meaning to the word. A lot of the values that Swarthmore operates on come off as very foreign to Muldrow inhabitants: particularly the desire for rigorous education. As I mentioned, a lot of people where I am from are told from a young age that college is simply not an option, or are even discouraged from seeking higher education. When I tell them that a lot of a typical Swattie’s free time can be spent discussing interesting topics from class with their friends, or the readings we’re doing at the time, and that these are not uncommon conversations for the dining hall, I often receive strange looks.
Being home is always a wonderful change of pace. As soon as I step out of the airport, I can literally smell that I am back in my home state: it smells like Oklahoma wind. Even better is the drive home: no crowded roads, no city drivers. People wave at each other as they pass on backroads. Life is slower, people are often kinder; there are sunsets on the plains, long drives in between towns, and you can never, ever forget the Sonics. I love Swarthmore, but everything that makes it amazing is different from where I’m from – and I love Muldrow, but everything that makes it amazing is different from where I go to school.
What is one or a couple things you wish your Swarthmore friends could know about being from a rural area?
That despite the last two elections, fly-over states and rural communities should not be written off as “helpless” or “lesser.” Swarthmore is an incredibly tolerant place, and I frequently hear small towns described as intolerant environments – however, even if this is true, we should actively practice our Swattie values and fight for change in these communities, as opposed to (politically or culturally) fighting the communities themselves. Ag-oriented communities provide our bread, our chicken, our milk – they work hard to stay above water and provide a life for their families. I wish Swatties knew how deeply class intersects with other problems we might otherwise be more actively concerned about, like police brutality and food insecurity.