The urban centers of California — San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego — are different from rural and suburban Middle America. They always have been and always will be.
But this does not excuse the polarizing treatment that Stanford urbanites throw in the direction of rural Americans. At a university where students shape and study the world, the ‘two Americas’ should not be so isolated. It is easy to forget the economic, political, and personal needs of Middle America when living in a bubble of self-driving cars and booming incomes. Despite this, all students should make an effort to understand the dire situation afflicting of some of America’s worst-off people.
I grew up in a small town in what most would consider rural America. Now, I live in the heart of Silicon Valley. I have seen not only the conspicuous physical and industrial differences of these two areas, but also the divergent mentalities and priorities of each place’s residents. Stanford has opened my eyes to a different lifestyle — a lifestyle I find unfamiliar.
I now realize the extent to which technology, industry, and research can dominate a region. The resources and jobs on offer could not be more different from the place I call home. It therefore comes as no surprise to me that the priorities of each region are also variant. To Palo Alto natives, it must be easy to see Middle America as foreign — just as I saw Stanford as foreign before September.
It may be difficult to understand how the other half lives, but it is not impossible. Respect for our differences is one of America’s foundational values. One region of America lives paycheck to paycheck, dependent on a mine, factory, or farm. Meanwhile, another region regulates the mines into oblivion, celebrates trade deals that shut the factories down, and automates the farm’s workers into unemployment. These changes move us all forward — but only if we recognize the people who they leave behind. And as the gap between rural and urban America widens, the temptation to abandon the world outside our cities only grows.
When the topic of environmental change comes up, too many Stanford students dismiss rural Americans as backward or in denial about climate change, but major urban centers and rural Middle America clearly differ in economic priorities. The transition to cleaner energy is a work in progress for many in Middle America, but it cannot abandon these industries entirely without many low-income Americans losing their jobs. Rural California is adjusting to clean energy more slowly than San Jose. That does not mean rural California is somehow lazier or less committed to the environment; the differing paces simply reflect differing economic realities. Considering why rural Americans might want a slower pace of change would transform campus conversations.
It is also important to realize that millions of Americans are employed in industries that we rarely see in sunny Palo Alto. Major urban centers in California are epicenters of technology, research, and entertainment. Meanwhile, Middle America still depends on agribusiness and material industries. The US has evolved into a service economy, but much of America has yet to follow the macro picture. The United States still needs the manufacturing and agrarian industries: agriculture accounts for $985 billion of our GDP. Nearly a tenth of US employment comes from agriculture. This is not some cottage industry, but rather how millions of Americans live.
I saw firsthand the effects of a coal mine closing in West Virginia. Steel production was once the heart of Ohio Valley, where I am from. The flight of steel and mining industries to overseas markets devastated my community and state. Job losses have rattled us since the 1990s. Economic disruption has had devastating results. West Virginia has the worst prescription drug abuse rate in the country. This is hardly surprising — for each percentage point increase in county unemployment, opioid related deaths rise almost four percent. It has one of the highest rates of unemployment, and some of the highest levels of obesity. All of these are preventable ills. All of them are direct consequences of unfettered economic disruption.
West Virginia’s residents lack the luxury and comfort to worry about the social issues Stanford talks about day and night. In my hometown alone, four people overdosed from prescription drugs or heroin within the week before the commencement of autumn quarter. If this is not an issue of social justice, what is?
Since coming to Stanford, I’ve realized that not everyone shared the priorities I had growing up. It was humbling to see that many urban Californians neither understood — nor really cared to understand — small-town and rural needs. I have personally felt nervous and afraid to share experiences and opinions of myself, my friends or family members, because I fear harsh judgments by peers. Stanford should foster a campus on which students can express their opinions freely, even and especially if they differ from those of their peers. When rural America feels cities are sidelining, crushing, or even actively mocking them, they vote with their feet. We all know how that ended in November.
Universities only thrive when their students understand other backgrounds. This is why we prize diversity, and why Stanford’s composition of domestic and international students is so important. But without that understanding, Stanford loses — and when we students take the reins of technological and political power in a few years, America will lose too. Open-mindedness, perspective, and empathy matter more in the age of Trump than ever before.