I grew up on a third-generation family farm in a rural part of Upstate New York. My childhood memories of growing up in our one-blinking-stoplight town is full of getting lost running through cornfields taller than I was and listening to and smelling all of the sounds and smells a farm can bring. But growing up, I never felt quite ‘right’ at home. I was really a child who was much too precocious; I loved escapism through reading books or performing on stage in plays or musicals. Being able to engage with words that transported me out of my small town became a lifeline to move past the occasional bouts of harassment I experienced from a handful of my classmates. While I certainly wasn’t out, I had a nascent awareness that I was gay. As I approached my junior year of high school, it was clear to me that I would leave home and not look back. Home – this space of family ties, the place where I was born and raised – brought me feelings of alienation.
For me, there was never any doubt that after graduation from high school that I would go on to college. My father, whose own educational experience began in a one-room schoolhouse in our town, reinforced this idea to my brother and I at an early age. He wanted us to do well academically and secure our piece of the middle class dream; the myth of meritocracy was alive and well within our family. In my senior year, I knew I was heading for college, but I also was very conscious of the fact that many of my classmates would not be. One of my most vivid memories of the time around high school graduation was the bulletin board in the lobby of the high school that had our names and where we were heading next. Nearly half of my classmates were staying home and attending the local two-year college; many others were enrolling in trade schools or entering military service. Only a third of us – myself included – were heading to four-year institutions, and the majority of those were attending public universities that were a part of the SUNY system.
When I started at Ithaca College, it became very clear that my own upbringing in a rural space was different than my peers. My socioeconomic status became very salient to me. I was a work-study student all four years – something that none of my friends did, which struck me as somewhat odd. I counted myself lucky to have my grandparents’ old 1993 Buick sedan, but it wasn’t anything compared to the fancier or newer-model cars my friends drove. College provided me the space and comfort to come out. My education of what it meant to be gay, which was predominantly marked by my peers and media images of what it meant to be a part of the White gay culture that emphasized the importance of looking stylish and having “nice” things. These messages were confusing and full of tension: a tension of wanting to desperately belong, but feeling a sort of loneliness in not being able to feel authentic in it. I shouldn’t wear my LLBean flannel shirts because that was “country,” yet wearing flashy club shirts were definitely not quite a good style for me either (and really, was it for anyone?). And so I didn’t quite feel at ‘home’ in my body or even my experiences in school.
Being involved as a student leader helped me with these feelings. The more I became engaged in organizations or leadership roles, the greater sense of belonging I felt. As I became more involved at school, I gravitated to my sociology classes that examined dimensions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and social class. I started to make sense of my own experiences growing up and how socioeconomic status also had nuances between rural and urban areas. Those ‘a-ha’ moments were transformative for me, and they helped lead me to a career in student affairs administration.
In my work in student affairs, I found a professional home, but when I went back to school to get my Master’s degree, I continued to be plagued by a sort of “imposter syndrome,” thinking that at some point my professors would realize that they chose the wrong student, that I was less academically prepared than my peers, and that I was maybe not deserving of the education I was getting (Mack, 2006). That created some additional tensions, both in the heart and the head. When graduating, I thought that my educational journey would stop there. After all, I was the first in my immediate family to have a Master’s degree. Why would I need more than that?
After a few years as a student affairs professional, I started to get an itch for the classroom, that space where I could engage in thinking that I just did not get to do at work. I began to apply for doctoral programs. While I was feeling confident about this decision, I found it frustrating that I hit resistance back home. My mother questioned why I needed to go to school again, and both of my parents worried about my student loans and what this would mean for my future. Their concerns haunted me, but I tried to push them to the recesses of my thoughts. My four years in my doctoral program were some of the most difficult and personally gratifying in my entire life, but it furthered a separation of my own sense of ‘home.’ The differences of life in Carlisle, NY to that in San Diego, CA were immense, but one was not necessarily better than the other. I loved (and continue to love) the things that I couldn’t necessarily get from the other. The beauty and vastness of the Pacific flanked with palm trees along with a rich and diverse mix of cultures in a metropolitan setting is lovely, but so too is looking up a night sky full and clear of stars on a crisp night in Fall with the scent of smoke from wood crackling in a fireplace in a neighbor’s home and the soft strain of “moos” from the cows on the farm.
Now, I find myself as a faculty member living in rural central Maine. The past two years have been filled with both light and shadow. The challenges of an interracial gay couple living in a rural part of Maine can be difficult, but my partner and I have found lovely friends and colleagues who have helped us find a temporary home here. I have begun to be more keenly interested in examining the role of rurality on first-generation college students and their college experiences, and I will begin a research study with my students on this in the near future. This journey – of education and life – seemingly has been haphazard, but I find there is sense to be made of it in full circle, personally and professionally.
Gloria Anzaldúa (1999) wrote, “We are the people who leap in the dark, we are the people on the knees of the gods. In our very flesh, (r)evolution works out the clash of cultures. It makes us crazy constantly, but if the center holds, we’ve made some kind of evolutionary step forward” (p. 103). While Anzaldúa was referring to her own experience of being a queer mestiza woman and her struggle for the borderlands of living in multiple worlds, I find great meaning and application of my own lived experience in her words. While I may not experience a strong sense of home in the traditional sense, I find a greater sense of home in myself, who I am and in community with others. My rural upbringing has not really been a deficit as I once thought, but instead has just been a different experience. I long for the sounds and smells of city life in balance with those of the country. It doesn’t actually have to be an either/or, but instead a both/and – in the hopes of being part of that (r)evolution and clash of cultures to the benefit of myself and others.
Daniel Tillapaugh, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow in Higher Education
University of Maine
Anzaldúa, G. (1999). Borderlands: La frontera (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.
Mack, N. (2006). Ethical representation of working-class lives: Multiple genres, voices, and
identities. Pedagogy, 6(1), 53-78.