Moving to a city from rural middle America

By LAURA WADSTEN | December 5, 2019

laura
COURTESY OF STEPHANIE LEE

Since moving to Baltimore and being at Hopkins, I’ve realized more and more the ways in which my upbringing in essentially the middle of nowhere influenced me. I spent as much time as possible during my childhood years outside, running through the woods and jumping in the lake with my little brother. The gravel road we lived on had virtually no traffic and we knew our neighbors well, so we had free reign to explore the acres of forest surrounding our log home. This may sound incredibly primitive, but one of the favorite activities of my siblings and I was to patrol the woods for dead trees and knock them down. Yep, it was a blast.

Another dominant aspect of my childhood was exposure to agriculture. My family would go to our farmland and clean up brush, pick rocks and perform other maintenance to the fields in their off-season. I’ve spent a larger-than-average amount of my life looking at dirt. In elementary school, I started riding horses and eventually got my own. I did competitions and was part of a 4H-sponsored drill team (a performance horseback group). Weekly practices in town are some of my favorite memories with my dad, who had the wonderful job of cleaning up my horse’s poop when I was riding. Living in the Midwest gave me an increased exposure to dirt and poop compared to most people I know.

Of course, this lifestyle sounds glamorous. I know people who hunt for their food, and I have eaten meat that my brothers shot, though I’ve personally never hunted. My trek to school was about 25 miles on the highway, and the only public transit we had was a single bus for the county that you could call to have come and pick you up. Perhaps the most astounding part about living in rural America is the isolation – the nearest Panera and Ikea were 70 and 120 miles away, respectively. 

Now that I’ve horrified everyone who has lived their entire life in a major city, there are some things you should know about rural America and the Midwest. The environment is super important to us, not least because of how heavily our economies depend on it. My hometown of Brainerd, Minn. is supported by seasonal tourism to our gorgeous lakes and beach resorts. Most of the smaller towns near mine depend on agriculture, and all the best high-school football teams were full of farm kids who had built their strength working on equipment, with animals and moving crops. In my unbiased opinion, the landscape of the North Shore of Lake Superior is the most gorgeous place in the world, especially in the fall. While we may not have been the people to start the metal straw trend, nor do we have recycling services everywhere, we have a unique appreciation for the Earth because of our close relationship with it.

While I will never tolerate anyone else’s disrespect of my home, I inevitably have some gripes with small towns. Less populated areas in the center of the U.S. have minimal exposure to diversity, so my high school’s graduating class was overwhelmingly white and disproportionately blonde (almost everyone I know had Scandinavian ancestry). Another issue I confronted growing up was the fact that most of the industries I was interested in pursuing were ones people in my town had never considered or sometimes even heard of. People still don’t know what or where Johns Hopkins is, and it is rare that the “s” on either Johns or Hopkins is included. Another fact I can’t ignore about my hometown is that it’s Trump territory. Without getting into politics or defending their stances, I’ll say that my hometown is not filled with bad people. It often feels ignored or forgotten by the rest of the country. 

I always knew I wanted to get away to a city for college, because I longed to experience things I saw in pop culture and on the news. Some probably could not imagine having never tried boba, but there was nowhere to get it near me. I never felt like I really fit or belonged in my hometown, especially since certain beliefs of mine and aspects of my identity made me a minority. 

Coming to Hopkins has given me a new community — one where people share my passions and ideas — and taught me a whole lot about what it means to be from the rural Midwest. During a service project for my pre-orientation program last year, our community partner admired my capacity  for manual labor, which I credit to the farm work I did as a kid. While I had previously hated how my upbringing had put calluses on my hands, I began to appreciate the discipline I’d developed. 

The differences between the natures of Brainerd and Hopkins mean I have played both the most left-leaning and right-leaning person in the room without changing any of my stances. I always had to be prepared to defend my positions in a way that would make sense to someone who completely disagreed with me. In our highly polarized political world, I like to think this has helped me be able to see multiple sides of a story, and to anticipate counterarguments to my stances. While I spent 18 years planning my escape from my small Minnesota town, moving away has made me realize how fundamentally I’ve been influenced by where I’m from. While I do NOT plan to move back to Brainerd in the future, as the job prospects for me would be incredibly slim, I am so proud to be from the rural Midwest. 

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