How Growing Up in a Higher Education Desert Impacted Me

Growing up, I lived 37 miles from Jackson State University, 54 miles from Mississippi College, 57 miles from Alcorn State University, and 94 miles from the University of Southern Mississippi. It never dawned upon me, until now, that I lived in a higher education desert, mainly, because Co-Lin Community College was only 10 miles from my parent’s house.

To add some context, let’s dive into our definition of a higher education desert. It’s an area of the U.S. where college aspirant citizens must drive (one way) more than sixty minutes (some definitions use the parameter of 25 miles) to attend to a 4-year college or university.

Using this definition, my small town of Hazlehurst, MS counts, as I had to commute 37 miles (one way) to attend Jackson State University during my graduate school days. Also, I had to drive 94 miles (one way) to the University of Southern Mississippi during my undergraduate days, and of course since the distance was great, I lived on-campus.

After reading an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Who Lives in Higher Education Deserts,” I started to think about how growing up in a higher education desert effected me as a student. During my reflections, I came up with two majors ways that life was negatively impacted by living in a higher education desert.

Financially: I grew up in Hazlehurst, MS, an extremely impoverished area of the state. My family always had a roof over our heads, but money was tight. So, when as an undergraduate, the added expense of transporting me 184 miles round trip during school breaks and holidays was an added financial burden on my parents. But, the University of Southern Mississippi was my school of choice, and it was a family tradition that my aunt starts during segregation. As a graduate student, the financial strain got a little more bearable, as I was K-12, but during my first year of teaching in 2001, I was barely bringing home $24,000 before taxes. Even though I was unmarried and had no dependents, the financial impact was significant, as I was also paying off student loans.

Time: As a forty-year-old, I have come to realize that the most precious resource that I possess is time. As an undergraduate student, spending 3 hours round trip in a car didn’t affect me much, as usually I was a passenger and could always study or read. As a graduate student though, I lost the luxury of time during my commutes. As a teacher and a graduate student, I often felt like there were not enough hours in the day to complete all of my goals and duties. I wish I could have those 3 times a week 80-minute roundtrips back. However, I will admit that they weren’t so bad, as I used the time to think, reflect, and plan.

Did you grow up in a higher education desert? How did it impact your life?

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