White Trash Academic Studies Abroad at 36

A few weeks ago, my classmates and I had an orientation for studying abroad. As the University of Alabama's director of study abroad programs clicked through her powerpoint, she noted that a number of things in her presentation were geared for undergraduate students rather than for doctoral students.

I suppose few doctoral students study abroad. Our program at UA is unique in a variety of ways. One of those ways is that students admitted to the executive doctoral program in higher education administration study abroad together. Our entire cohort will meet up on Saturday evening in Amsterdam, and we will spend a week visiting various higher education institutions in the Netherlands and Belgium. We are all enrolled in a course titled Comparative Higher Education, and the professor who will lead our study this summer is Dr. Frankie Laanan, who, it's no secret, is one of my cohort's favorite faculty members.

As I make my packing list, work my way through the pre-travel readings, and work toward getting everything set here at home to make Betsy's time alone on the homestead manageable, it isn't lost on me just how different I am both from most other doctoral students and from members of my own family.

I am a first generation college student, but that phrase, which is almost so broad as to be meaningless, doesn't describe my circumstances completely. Neither of my parents finished high school. My mother later earned a GED and got a diploma from a technical school, but my father never made it past tenth grade. While dad is a talented mechanic who had a meaningful career, he is functionally illiterate.

The result of my family history is that, after I reached a certain point in my academic life, I no longer had the shared vocabulary to meaningfully discuss my education with my parents. I'm certain that my mother knew I was pursuing a master's degree when she died, but I'm not all that sure she really knew what that meant or what graduate school was like. My father knows I'm working toward another degree, this one at the University of Alabama, because he is a saint in making sure Betsy knows she can call him with any problems that arise when I'm gone to Tuscaloosa for my coursework weekends. He also knows that I'm headed across the big pond later this week. However, we haven't really talked about what I'll do there, because I'm just not sure how to explain it to him. We can talk about engines and farming all day long, but it's hard for us to talk about my education.

I realize that discussing my family history is a weighty topic for a series of essays meant to focus on my experiences completing a doctoral course abroad, but it is essential, I think, for voices like mine to have a place in higher education dialogue. I have spent the bulk of my academic career researching and writing about people who come from situations like mine. Most of those who read my essays do so not because of any of my academic accomplishments but because they see my website shared via social media. It isn't the abstract or esoteric parts of my education or scholarship that people care about. It's the vulnerability I share in writing about what it means to rise out of poverty and pursue the good life knowing that I will not be able to pull my loved ones or my region out of poverty with me. It's the vulnerability I wear on my sleeve when I talk about how being from Appalachia and pursing higher education often alienates us both purposefully and inadvertently from the people and the places we love.

I have often used the term "white trash" when writing about Appalachia. I continue to reclaim that word because it gets thrown around all the time by people who either use it flippantly or hurtfully. I want those who use the term to know that there are real people - often suffering people - on the other end of that loaded term. For all of my life, I have been one of those people. I grew up white trash, and even though I live a comfortable middle class life now, there's something that never leaves you when you grow up that way. It's a conversation I have often with my colleagues who come from similar backgrounds. There's a sizable but invisible community of white trash academics.

So what does all that have to do with my impending journey to Europe? Quite a lot, really. There's a common expression in Appalachia: "Don't get above your raising." I hate this expression, but I have heard it all my life. In being a doctoral student traveling to Europe to study abroad, I have gotten way above my raising. Though I hesitate to blame culture for Appalachia's problems, the reality is that this expression bears some blame for the inability of young people to rise out of poverty. The unwillingness of many Appalachian youth to pursue their dreams and go to college can be attributed, at least in part, to this idiotic and dangerous concept.

As I said, and as is evidenced by my matriculation in a doctoral program, I got above my raising. In some ways, I have paid for it by fractured relationships with some members of my family. Even my own mother once quipped to me that I must have thought I knew what was best for her because I got an education. At the time, we were discussing her desperate need for inpatient psychiatric care, and I did, in fact, know better than she did what was best for her in that moment. That's the thing about not getting above your raising. When an entire region buys into this idea, there's a dire shortage of the sort of expertise necessary to elevate the region out of poverty. Those of us who get above our raising often leave. I can't blame those who do.

I am a history professor and administrator at a small liberal arts college in Appalachia. In so many of my students, I see stories much like my own. One of the reasons I am excited about visiting a number of European colleges and universities is to see how they approach problems differently than we do here in the US. There's no shortage of problems in US higher education, particularly at small private liberal arts colleges. I'm hoping that by thinking outside the box and looking at the ways people from different cultures approach the problems of higher ed, I will be better prepared to address some problems I face at my own institution. I am hoping that by getting above my raising, I will be able to do some good for the region I so dearly love.

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© 2019 -  Joshua Wilkey - This Appalachian Life