My Journey from Kentucky’s Rural Poverty to Wellesley — and Across the Empathy Gap

As a young girl in rural southeastern Kentucky, I remember distinctly hearing my teacher talk about “first of the month-ers,” or people who were out and in the grocery stores at the first of the month, typically with shopping “buggies” overloaded with preserved food.

When I looked around the classroom I noticed many of my friends either staring timidly down at their desks or exchanging looks as the wealthier students encouraged the teacher on her rant.

Because the “welfare queen” idea is prominent among people who do not understand poverty, I wanted to excuse my teacher or at least only gently correct her.

Could she be blamed for not knowing the struggle of only being able to afford transportation to the grocery store once a month? I do not know, but I do know that when I would get into the car after school with dad wearing his tattered coveralls from working in the woods that day and he would offer to take me to the store, I would often say we should do it later; heaven forbid we saw one of my teachers.

There is an empathy gap between far too many educators and students like me, and I think it may explain why I so often felt disenfranchised in school.

When I joined the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, which works to elevate student voice in education research, policy and advocacy across Kentucky, I wrote a piece about poor students needing more from policymakers.

The article was a part of the dissemination strategy around our College Tripwires work, a year-long, student-led exploration about some of the inequities that exist in the postsecondary transition process.

Our team felt that my voice would be extra significant in bringing our findings and recommendations to more thought leaders because as a student from a low-income family in eastern Kentucky, I was living the very challenges our report tried to address.

The transformative moment came because I was not just a targeted subject of this study but a co-creator. I was able to own the narrative because I was a researcher as well. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words: “I was within and without,” simultaneously experiencing living within the confines of my Appalachian poverty while also contributing to the dynamic body of knowledge about students in my situation.

My writing in the Courier-Journal, “Poor Students Need More From Policymakers,” garnered a lot of positive feedback and moved a private college counselor, Jane Shropshire, to take me on as a client for free. It was Jane who then paired me with QuestBridge, a scholarship program connecting low income students with top colleges. Through QuestBridge, I was accepted with a full ride to Wellesley College.

In college I continue to be simultaneously within and without.

As a Wellesley student, a woman who will, and is a part of academia, I am also a hillbilly, an Appalachian, and a Kentuckian. While the students in my classes who came from strong school backgrounds are able to transition to college and even find work study jobs while succeeding, I struggle to keep up with the new formats and challenging material, much less find a job despite applying to all applicable open positions.

Aside from obvious class differences, I face social exposure disparities in various situations. When eating in the dining hall, my plate looks much plainer than my peers.  And in our conversations, it is obvious that I do not have nearly the same exposure to music and arts or international travel experience.

My story is a testament to what can happen when students are given ownership over their education. Because of my experiences, I want to help students like me succeed and am currently mentoring other low income students.

As I continue to study education policy in college, I am staying in close contact with the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team so that I, can amplify the voices of other Appalachians and improve my home state through education.

My story embodies the idea that education is freedom. It is freedom from poverty, freedom from abuse, and freedom from so many of the problems that plague young people like me struggling to succeed and give back.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Amanda Wahlstedt

Amanda Wahlstedt is a student at Wellesley College, where she is a member of the class of 2020.