Is the World Flat?

Rural Students Face a Wrenching Decision About Returning Home

There's a Hal Ketchum song about life in small-town America that has haunted me throughout my time at Harvard. In it, a high school kid argues that "the world must be flat/'cause when people leave town they never come back."

As someone from a small town in a rural state, the bitterness that line contains is sobering-because I left town, and now is the time to decide if I am coming back. Many of my friends are facing the same decision. And the truth is, a log of us won't be advancing the case for a spherical Earth.

At least one study found that most Harvard students from rural areas do not return following their graduation but instead end up in major metropolitan areas. It's not a phenomenon limited to Harvard students; despite the fact that Rhodes Scholars are selected by region, there are currently 10 states with less than six scholars in residence.

The "brain drain" is certainly a familiar concept to the folks at home. Nebraska has started giving their brightest students generous financial packages (like the ones the top football players get) in an attempt to keep them around for college, increasing the chances they will stay in the state permanently.

While my home state doesn't have any such program, I'm aware that the summer positions I've gotten, with high levels of responsibility and great pay, aren't your average internship opportunities. When I got my dream summer job last year, one of my mentors finished the phone message with the refrain, "So come back home!"


No matter whom I'm talking to at home nowadays--whether it's the parishioners at church, scholarship committees, or the checkout lady in the grocery store--I know I will be asked if I'm coming home after school. And they want to hear only one answer: yes. Anything else is selling out your home.

Of course, many in the Harvard community expect the exact opposite answer and are puzzled--if not outright critical--of students who haven't seen the light and decided to join their classmates in more exciting, cosmopolitan settings. After all, only the Unabomber wants to live in the middle of nowhere, right?

Because of these reactions, it is impossible to make a choice and not feel that you are letting one community of people down. It is impossible to choose to come back or to go elsewhere without people assuming you don't have the "right" values. I've found both communities of people to be insensitive and insulting in their disregard for what a tough decision it is to make.

When I get together to talk with friends from rural areas, the conversation relentlessly returns to the same question. But unlike any of the others asking us, we don't expect a single answer. In fact, the closest thing to a wrong answer is a failure to recognize the wrenching nature of the dilemma, or worse, to disparage those who are making the opposite choice. We know that no one is making these choices lightly.

After three years of arguing it out with myself, I've decided that I will go home. In doing so, I know I am giving up the richness of resources; there will not be the diversity of people or intellectual opportunities in a rural area that there is in large cities. But for me, the low crime rate, general neighborliness and open space make a fair trade. I found a vocation--natural resource policy--that I can pursue to its highest and most demanding levels in the West, and it will pay the bills at the same time. I don't have a significant other from another location to consider, and I enjoy Western culture.

I am also aware that this set of circumstances is mine alone, and I know that not one of my friends is in precisely the same position I am. I adamantly refuse to judge their carefully weighed decisions or criticize their value systems. I only wish that others, both here and at home, would do the same.

To those of my friends who will join me back at home, I'm happy to know we'll be nearby. To those who are leaving, I hope we'll keep in touch and come to visit, if not to stay. Among all of us, we'll make sure that not only will my children have a home to go back to, they will have friends to come to in the first place.

Valerie J. MacMillan '98, a resident of Eagle, Idaho, was managing editor of The Crimson in 1997. She plans to return home after studying at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.