From kindergarten to eighth grade, Grace Skafdal spent ’23 every school day in the same building: a bright pink, one-room school 11 miles east of the nearest town. In the days spent traveling back and forth between school and her family’s cattle ranch, Skafdal passed her friends and family who live on pastures like her own, finding comfort in a place she can call home.
Over time, Schafdal’s passion for literature and her experiences visiting cities in the Northeast have instilled a curiosity about the world outside of her native Harrison, Nebraska. In high school, an English teacher encouraged Skavdahl to apply to Ivy League colleges, explaining that many were looking to accept more students from rural areas. With his advice in mind, Schafdal went through the college admissions process and was accepted into Brown.
The university has recently sought to increase the attendance of students from rural areas on its campuses. Dean of Admissions Logan Powell explained at the Undergraduate Council meeting on November 10 that rural students are among the groups that the Office of Admissions currently prioritizes in its recruitment efforts. Between the application cycles for the class of 2024 and the class of 2025, the university saw a 23% increase in applications from students residing in locations defined as rural areas or small towns by the US Census Bureau, the Herald previously reported.
For rural students like Schafdal, coming to Brown means navigating city life for the first time.
Traveling across the country, Schafdal finds herself on her way to the new opportunities and obstacles that life in Providence will bring.
Schafdal’s previous education was not as “strict” as Brown in many respects. She noted that, despite her passion for learning, she “didn’t come up with much study skills,” such as completing multiple drafts of essays and studying for long periods of time.
Schafdal said she developed pneumonia during her first week of freshman year, which led to her missing all of the guiding events in her class. This, in addition to being so far from home, made her feel “extremely isolated”.
“It was hard, social, and being away from my family, especially with the way I was raised. She said she was community oriented.” I graduated with six kids in my class, two of whom are cousins.
She said being away from her family and community “was definitely confusing” and even “a bit frustrating at first”. But for Scafdal, being away from home doesn’t mean a complete separation from those she’s counting on, and her friends and letters have sent her messages to check on her because she’s so used to Brown.
Sach Sumner-Waldman ’23, a resident of upstate New York, noted that although the location of his future college was not considered when searching for schools, he was glad that he ended up in a smaller city like Providence rather than a larger city like New York or Boston. “It’s a little easier to move, to move from a small town like this to a more relaxed town like this,” he said.
When looking at colleges for the first time, Elle Madsen22 did not explicitly seek to attend a city school but wanted to gain experiences beyond what she could find in her hometown of New London, Wisconsin.
“I wanted to leave my hometown, which I think is common among a lot of other rural students,” she said. Near where she lives, Madsen said she didn’t see “the same educational opportunities” that she found in the cities, which prompted her to apply to Brown.
For Madsen, the idea of attending university in a city was always a “perfect picture” of the opportunity to find a community in a space more in tune with her social and political beliefs.
But after arriving on campus, Madsen said the biggest adjustment came from the culture shock of living in an environment like Brown.
“I certainly didn’t understand what I was imagining,” she said. “For me, I think the biggest change was not necessarily the physical environment around me but the more types of people I’d meet every day – mostly from cities, and they went to really good high schools.”
Entering Brown without the “cultural capital” of other students who attended elite high schools and who were familiar with Ivy League culture left Madsen with barriers to social integration with those around her, and she felt pressured to fit in with their lifestyles.
“I just felt like a stranger where I felt like if I was going to have a conversation with someone, I was literally performing and trying to fit in,” she said. For students who were more accustomed to the culture of elite, wealthy educational institutions, she added, “it seemed very normal”. “They’ve been involved in this kind of social situation all their lives.”
For Andreas Rivera-Young, who grew up on a farm in rural Virginia, attending a private high school made him “feel well-prepared to attend Brown University,” though he said it’s still hard to think of the number of wealthy students from urban areas studying in the University. Rivera Young noted that his discomfort and difficulty navigating the social scene at Brown University are related to his identity as a rural student and U-FLi student.
Get The Herald delivered to your inbox daily.
Rivera Young noted the “rich nature” of how the students mingled with others. He noted that students often visit other cities on weekends, and pay for transportation and accommodation out of their own pockets. “I know it’s not exclusionary on purpose,” he said, “(but) that’s something I can’t do.”
Schafdal noted that she was able to better integrate into Brown socially over time, finding friends on the equestrian team. Although she was concerned that such a rural background might set her apart from her peers, she found that many appreciated hearing about her experience.
Rivera Young said that although he did not make exclusive friendships with rural students in his time at Brown, he feels a different relationship with the rural students, who often share and understand their experiences.
Madsen agreed that she found appreciation for the other rural students she could get to know. Students from urban and suburban areas “have no understanding of what it means to live in a rural area, so I feel like they don’t understand this part of my personality.”
She added, “It’s very rare that I find someone (that I love about), ‘Oh, we have similar backgrounds.'” I really stick with that.”
“When I’m here, I miss the quiet. 22.5, it’s very quiet at home,” Muller-Harder said. They said they found sanctuary in small pockets of campus that reminded them of life in Vermont. For example, after visiting the university’s conservatory, which is a greenhouse. At 85 Waterman St., on a particularly difficult day, Mueller-Harder said they “suddenly felt like a human being again.”
Regarding where they would like to live someday, Müller-Harder said, “The ideal would be to live in the middle of nowhere…but a five-minute walk from the city.”
Sumner Waldman noted that his time in the cities made him more interested in living in a city in the future, even though “big cities can be a little intimidating”.
But Schafdal still feels withdrawn to her roots in the country.
“I really, personally, want to go back, maybe not to Nebraska, but somewhere a little more rustic,” said Skafdal. “It’s where I personally feel best and most comfortable.”
“I love seeing the wide open spaces,” she added. “I miss the stars.”