Those Flyover States

Sixty-five years ago Harvard wasn’t too big on diversity.  A stereotypical Harvard College class at that time would have been white, male, and wealthy. In 1950, the Harvard freshman class included only four black students. Women weren’t issued Harvard degrees until 1963, and admissions did not become need-blind until the late 1950s. Today, a typical Harvard class presents a vastly different picture. The class of 2017 contained only slightly more men than women, the class of 2015 contained record numbers of minority students, and almost 60 percent of Harvard students receive some form of need-based financial aid. When seen in this light present day Harvard not only seems to severely contrast the Harvard of yesteryear, but also appears to be a model of diversity for others to emulate.

However, one must question if these numerical indicators span all types of diversity. For though undergraduates hail from all regions of the country in roughly similar numbers, geographic diversity is lacking and in some cases blatantly disregarded by the student population. As a student population we embrace the utopia that Harvard creates, allowing us to connect with students from vastly different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. We sing praises about a culture that encourages us to learn more about and befriend those of different sexual orientations, different views, and different experiences from our own. On our campus, singling someone out or even worse insulting someone because they are a minority, from a low-income family, of a different religion from your own, or part of the BGLTQ community is completely socially unacceptable, and so it should be.

Why, then, when I introduce myself as being from West Virginia, does it become okay to ask if I have shoes and teeth or, worse, say that you feel sorry for me? It would never occur to the vast majority of our college to insult or put down someone’s sexuality, race, or ethnicity, so why is geography different? It’s different because although in the past 65 years Harvard students have for the most part abandoned their belief that being white, male, and wealthy is more desirable than being of color, female, or poor, we have not yet abandoned our belief that being from the Northeast, the West Coast, or from a city is far superior than hailing from a so-called flyover state. Not only is it generally socially acceptable to put down my home state and much of the South and Midwest, there is also a perception that I should agree with you.

The problem is I don’t agree with you. Just ask me about my state. I could tell you that less than 15 percent of high school freshman in my state will go on to any form of higher education, and I went to school with students who lacked running water and had dirt floors in their homes. I could tell you that in some counties in West Virginia over half of children live below the poverty line and that the per capita income is under $11,000. Then maybe you’d understand why the jabs you make about shoes and teeth aren’t funny. They may not apply to me, but they strike way too close to home. On the other hand, I could also tell you about how incredible West Virginia is. I could tell you about what it’s like to stand at the top of a mountain in the fall and see an entire valley of trees that seem to be on fire with reds and gold as the sun sets behind them. I could tell you what it’s like to sing “Country Roads” with 60,000 people in the West Virginia University football stadium and know that the entire state is watching their televisions and singing too. I could tell you about what it feels like for your entire town to celebrate your admission to Harvard. Most of all, though, I could tell you about my home and how it’s made me who I am.

And that’s the key. This isn’t about West Virginia – it’s about you and me. Part of my identity has been formed from growing up in West Virginia, and when you write my home state off before knowing anything about it, you write part of me off as well. Yes, that part of me is vastly different from you, but we are all vastly different from each other and that’s what makes Harvard special. Our geographic backgrounds are just another piece of the puzzle of diversity that creates Harvard.

However, when we continue to assume that the lifestyles of certain places are better than the lifestyles of other places, the puzzle remains incomplete. With that, I challenge you. The next time you want to make a hillbilly joke or just make an assumption about a place you’ve never been to, realize your ignorance. Instead of assuming, or worse, judging—ask. Ask the less than two-tenths of one percent of Harvard students from West Virginia about growing up there. Ask the two Harvard students who hail from Wyoming about their state. Ask those students who come from small towns and small high schools across the country what makes their home special. Then maybe we as a community can move forward, begin to abandon our geographical stereotypes and falsehoods, and form a stronger and more diverse Harvard.

Tess A.C. Wiegand ’15 is an applied math concentrator in Mather House.