Everyone got it wrong.
During my first week at the University of Virginia, no one could place my accent. When going through the list of get to know you questions, people would ask, “Where are you from? Mississippi? Alabama?”
I thought, Really? I grew up less than two hours away from here. Chances are, I probably grew up closer to this place than you did.
And we’re from the same state. VIRGINIA.
Most UVA students attended high school in Northern VA, better known as NOVA on Grounds*. I grew up in the Eastern part of the state. Different ships, same boat.
I kept my response polite.
“I’m from Virginia. I grew up in a small town called New Kent County, Home of the first, First Lady. Have you heard of it?”
Slightly embarrassed by knowing so little about Martha, they’d respond with a speedy “Nope. Where is it?”
“In between Richmond and Williamsburg.”
“Oh, cool…Insert knowledgeable comment about Richmond or Williamsburg.”
Did I really sound that southern? No one had ever commented on my accent before. And were some of the most well-educated Virginians at the number 1 public university in the country so unaware of what other citizens in their home state sounded like? More embarrassingly, how the hell did I not realize that I sounded so different from everyone else around me?
This was my first moment of culture shock at Jefferson’s University**.
The realization of an accent is not necessarily what I would categorize as distressing. However, it did make me aware that many of my childhood experiences, and beliefs, would be different than that of my peers. This compounded the stress that already existed as a result of managing rigorous classes. There was also that mildly stressing need to figure out what to do with my life.
It never occurred to me that I would be such a country bumpkin compared to my classmates. I was on a different ship, and I was lost at sea.
While my discomfort ultimately enhanced my learning experience – I would argue it was the most valuable part of my learning experience at UVA – I just didn’t understand how I could be so culturally ill-prepared. I graduated at the top of my class. I took my advanced and AP courses, learning about people from all over the world, but I never had the learning experience of actually interacting with people outside of my small town. And my peers that attended nationally ranked high schools in NOVA – taking roughly 100 times the amount of advanced courses I did in my bumpkin high school – somehow they didn’t realize that people in their home state could sound like me! How had our ships never crossed paths?
As an educator, I constantly consider how to expose my students to people and topics that are foreign to them. They should have at least some experience navigating the ocean of differences that exist in this world before setting sail for college.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Perhaps if more students were exposed to different ships on their educational voyage, it would be easier to see how we’re all in the same boat. I wonder if I would see us as all in the same boat if my ship had never left my hometown?
*Grounds – UVA students say “Grounds” instead of campus. This is a UVA tradition and way to show others how cultured we are.
**Jefferson’s University – A fancy way of saying you went to UVA. UVA takes great pride in the fact that it was founded by the 3rd President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson also owned over 600 slaves in his lifetime.
Nothing says cultured like a stylish hat and a cucumber.
Leave me some comments! Did you experience culture shock when you went away to college? If yes, how so? Are you an educator trying to prepare for scholars for the demands of college? If yes, tell me how! I’d love to hear your thoughts.