Couvillion: Dartmouth and the Deep South

A Southerner’s perspective on success at Dartmouth.

by Zach Couvillion | 5/14/19 2:05am

Dartmouth students come from all sorts of backgrounds. The College allocates substantial resources to those who identify as first-generation and low-income adjust to the Dartmouth environment. For example, the First Year Student Enrichment Program provides an orientation experience specifically for students of these backgrounds. This approach is commendable, but economics cannot fully capture a student’s identity. As someone from the rural South, I can attest that while socioeconomic factors are important, we cannot let its importance make us forget about how our geographic backgrounds also affect our experience of Dartmouth. Just as we actively promote other forms of diversity, we should also enthusiastically celebrate the Dartmouth student body’s geographic diversity and try to learn from the cultural perspectives it brings. 

A college town in the Northeast and a small rural town in the South are completely different universes, each bestowing a distinct accent of reality on its members. Surface level analyses of politics and traditions do not adequately describe the divergent philosophies of the regions. 

For example, I recall a conversation I had with a low-income student who participated in FYSEP programming. Having grown up in a large city, she noted that actively pursuing professional development was expected of her due to the opportunities that surrounded her. As someone from a small rural town in Mississippi, I found her story remarkable. The members of my graduating class did not even have résumés going into the college application season, much less internships or research experience. 

It’s not that those from the rural south have mindsets at odds with success: The mindset just follows a different definition of success. Obsessing over acceptance into top-tier colleges is unheard of in my hometown. Instead of viewing a prestigious college as a rung on the ladder of success, the students I knew in high school were content with staying in town, attending either community college or pursuing technical training. A strong sense of home and community is one of the hallmarks of southern culture, one that my community values over individualistic desires to ascend the ladder of prestige.

Part of this ethos comes from the strong religious sentiment present in the South. A 2016 Pew Research study showed that Southern states have the highest percentage of adults who go to church, pray daily and believe in God’s existence with absolute certainty. Mississippi and Alabama tie for the most religious states in the U.S., while New Hampshire ranks as the least religious state in the U.S., tying only with Massachusetts . Southern Christian religiosity does not only affect political views: It gives communities a sense of purpose and belonging. 

Take a conversation I had with a student from a competitive Northeastern high school as an example. She claimed that the prevailing attitude in her school could be described as: “If you don’t get into a top-tier school, then who are you?” But I would rather ask myself: “What does it take to be a respected member of my community?” It’s not important to go to an Ivy League school or to secure the most prestigious internships. All that matters is being a good family member, having good values and, importantly, being a good Christian.

Some of the smartest and most accomplished students I know are ones who have stayed at home in their community. While family is a common value shared throughout the United States, a key aspect of the South is the predisposition to value family over education, return to one’s roots and stay firm to one’s identity as a community member. No award-winning academic, influential politician or wealthy entrepreneur could ever achieve the Southern definition of success: The success of staying humble and accepting Jesus.

In my experience, many Dartmouth students from the rural South diverged from this mindset one way or another, but that does not change the fact that they grew up in this environment. It is critical to recognize these types of social differences and foster an environment of acceptance of these sentiments, to resist the urge to make political judgements of the conservative South and have awareness of the deeper issue at work. Perhaps we can also use this as an opportunity to reflect on our definition of success or at least recognize that success is more subjective than we may have thought.