Tales of the non-traditional

Although Sue's story is just a small part of this piece on "life in one of the country's poorest counties."  Sue attended Eastern Kentucky University, by the way.  By Monica Potts, writing in The American Prospect

Pressing On the Upward Way
Now Sue was stuck in science and math courses, next to students fresh out of high school, talking about meta-this and osmosis-that. She was used to setting to a task and working in a fury until it was done, but maybe going to college was a bad idea, maybe she had reached the limits of her mental ability. If a data-entry company had been hiring on, she would have taken the job. When she’d go home, she’d tell J.C., “I don’t think I can do college.”

Sue felt like whenever someone from Owsley County went out into the world, the world went out of its way to poke them in the eye. One professor, who spoke at an orientation seminar, encouraged the freshman class to rub out their accents. “It’s all right to be from Eastern Kentucky,” he told them, “but you don’t need to sound like you’re from here.” Eastern Kentucky University was supposedly in the same region as Owsley County, but as far as Sue was concerned, that hour’s drive into the rolling hills of the Bluegrass was on the other side of the country. The limestone runoff from the Appalachians enriched the Bluegrass, making it ideal for tobacco, horses, and bourbon. Even the soil, it seemed, took what it wanted from the mountains and made itself rich.

Then, in her second semester, Sue took a class called “Educational Foundations” from a professor named Roger Cleveland. He had taught in some big city, Louisville or Cincinnati—Sue could never remember—in a school for teenagers who lived in gang-ridden neighborhoods. Part of his job was to go to the kids and say, “Don’t look so close at the situation you’re in now. Look at where you want to be,” and that resonated with Sue. He asked Sue once, “Christian, do you feel like, because you’re from Eastern Kentucky, people try to put you in a box?” She said, “Well, yeah, I do.” It was weird, but it was this man from the city who seemed to understand her and her people, and that was a way to win Sue over.

Cleveland gave all his students a test that identified their learning styles. For Sue the test was a revelation. It said that she absorbed material better by doing projects with her hands than by listening to lectures or reading textbooks. The learning-styles test became a talisman for Sue to ward against the danger of feeling dumb. She changed the way she studied. By the time she got her degree, in May 2011, she’d won an award for being on the dean’s list. She graduated along with about 300 other middle-school education students, who would compete with one another for jobs in Eastern Kentucky. Sue hadn’t found a job by graduation, but that didn’t matter. “Have you ever impressed your own self with what you’re capable of doing?” she says. “That’s how I felt when I got my degree.”


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