How Rural Students Define the American Dream

A photo essay highlights the perspectives of teens on politics, education, and hopes for the future.

John Sommers II / Reuters

The belief that if a person works hard enough she can become financially successful, regardless of existing barriers to opportunity, is integral to the American mythos of meritocracy. But a 2011 Pew Charitable Trust poll found that many Americans—whether they are living in cities, small towns, or rural communities—share pessimism about upward mobility.

Rural communities experience higher rates of poverty and lower rates of college completion than urban communities, making upward mobility for rural students more difficult. What do students in rural communities think about the American Dream? Does it exist, is it attainable, and what role does education play in their climb? I spoke with students from rural communities about the American Dream and what it means to them. Below are highlights from five of those interviews.

Magdalena Slapik

Madison Ortega, 10th grade—Morehead, Kentucky (population: 6,845)

In middle school, we had an assembly about hunger and poverty in Eastern Kentucky, and they had these numbers, and they’d have students stand up, and they’d be like, “this is how many students in your school could be facing hunger or could be facing poverty.” I find that that is a big issue in our community, living in Eastern Kentucky. I grew up when I was little with both parents, and when I was in first grade, my parents did get a divorce. Neither of my parents went to college. My mom actually went for a little bit, but she never graduated, and my father didn’t go at all. I now live with my mom, and we actually recently moved in with her mom, so it’s the three of us. My mom’s going back to college at our town’s university, Morehead State. That’s exciting. We’ve been low income my entire life, especially since I’ve just been living with my mom, because she hasn’t had a job, we’ve kind of just been living off of child support and what not.

To me, the American Dream means that you have the opportunity and the resources to live out the ideas that you have, to live how you want to live. Honestly, I think that my family and I would be living the American Dream. My mom—she’s going to get a job here one of these days, and I’m going to school and hopefully going to get into a college to get a decent job. Education is the key to a lot of things, and it is the key to ending the cycle of poverty. Poverty is a vicious cycle. Education is the key to getting into a good college, which is the key to getting a good job, which is the key to making money, to getting out of poverty. It is all about money, based on where you live and how much money is in that area, how much is going into that school, what family you’re born into, how much money they’re able to put into your education. I think that we might just break our family’s cycle of poverty. I think that we are living the American Dream.

Magdalena Slapik

Jadaci Henderson, 12th grade—Dumas, Arkansas (population: 4,706)

The term ‘the American Dream’ to me means me being able to feel safe on every corner of America. It means I am offered the same opportunities as anybody else —male, female, black, white, whatever. And, it means to me that I can do whatever I want as long as it’s lawful. I should be able to do whatever I feel like. Honestly, no. I don’t feel like I’m living the American Dream, especially not here, in Southeast Arkansas, being a black female with a big mouth. You’re looked at funny when you want to be something more than just a wife one day and you live in Dumas. Or you want to be something more than just a teacher. If you have dreams beyond what other people feel like you should, you can’t live the American Dream in a place like this.

Magdalena Slapik

Chris Mayes, 11th grade,—Swannanoa, North Carolina (population: 4,576)

This is how I used to think about the American Dream: graduate college after I graduate high school, move to L.A., get a job out there, have a nice house, have a wife and two kids. That’s what I thought was the American Dream for me. I’m gay. I used to just deny everything. Now, for me, I want to graduate college, it’s pretty much the same, but I want to go out to L.A. and become an actor, I want to get a house, get into a relationship, and then I want to travel. That would be my dream. Just to travel everywhere. Be like, “Oh, hey, I’m in Paris.” Two weeks later, “Oh, I’m in Japan.” Just never stop having fun and being me and that’s what I think my American Dream is. I’m about halfway there.

Magdalena Slapik

Perry Allen, 11th grade—Nicholasville, KY (population: 28,015)

I don’t know that the standard definition of the American Dream—of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and making something of yourself—[has] ever been entirely true, and I definitely don’t think it is now. The spirit of America as a democracy requires that a good citizen should be involved and be informed, but that also requires a certain level of security and success. The American Dream is to get to a place where you can be an active member of civil discourse and an active member of governance. I think there’s a variety of cultural and institutional obstacles to that kind of participation.

Culturally, there’s not necessarily a huge amount of support for education, and in some parts of the community, not everyone necessarily subscribes to the idea that being successful in high school and going to college and getting a degree is the best way to achieve your goals and to be prosperous. While not everyone needs a bachelor’s degree, that doesn’t mean that education isn’t important. Those attitudes are definitely not good for the intellectual health of the community.

Going from the middle to the upper class, you have access to the basic resources: the education, the social and cultural know-how. There’s a larger gap between the lower and the middle class. I definitely don’t think it’s impossible to move up from that, because people do it. It’s objectively possible, because there are success stories, but it’s definitely not possible for everyone to do it, because the people who move from the lower to the middle class got lucky in some way, whether they had a terrible home life and they happened to be put in a class with a teacher who noticed and accommodated them and pushed them towards success, or whether they heard about some scholarship in their junior year that they could have just entirely missed that allowed them to go to college. Those opportunities don’t pop up for everyone, and there are not enough opportunities to elevate everyone from the lower to the middle class. It’s never going to be possible for everyone, and some serendipity is necessary.

Magdalena Slapik

Shamus Hayes, 9th grade—Bristol, Vermont (population: 3,894)

I don’t think [being American is] like eating McDonald’s, shooting shotguns, and hanging an American flag in the back of a Chevy. I feel like it’s actually caring about America, which isn’t all those things, like, hating Muslims. That’s not American. The whole basis of America, it’s an immigrant country. All the people from Western Europe came over here and they took the land in the first place from the Natives. No American is truly native. I feel like the American Dream would be more accepting and helping other countries, and helping our own country more, instead of like rich politicians helping themselves, which was one of the reasons Bernie Sanders was a good candidate, because he wanted to take down all those wealthy people giving themselves tax breaks or what not, and help the middle lower class. I feel like that’s more the American Dream than banning Muslims from America.

I feel like there’s a line between defending your country and its people, and then harming other countries by being extreme. All the people from Mexico, or South America trying to get into America—I don’t think everybody understands that they’re trying to come to America because they don’t have good lives where they’re living. By building a wall, they’re still going to try to get over here because, either they stay there and just live a poor life, or die and get pulled into drugs or whatever life they’re living there. They’re still going to try to get over the wall, get a job. Instead of building a wall, we should aid all those impoverished countries that actually need help. Building a wall isn’t going to do anything.