Kieren Weisert, a Columbia College sophomore, is from Corbin, Kentucky, a small, historically Republican city in Appalachia. It is located in Whitley County, 78 percent of which voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Local news is often world news in Manhattan, but the big story in Corbin this week is the postponement of a nearby Brad Paisley concert.
“It’s about as conservative as you can imagine with social issues,” Weisert remarks. “It’s an area marked by pretty depressing poverty. It’s generally stereotyped in the news as rednecks, as the illiterate and the uninformed. It’s a place that’s probably forgotten by the rest of America. I think people in my area don’t really look over their mountains, and I don’t think we actually really care who lives near those mountains in the first place.”
Weisert is one of the few Columbia students from the American South, which the United States Census Bureau identities as 16 states stretching from Texas to North Carolina. The proportion of American students from the South hovers around 20 percent for each undergraduate class at Columbia. By contrast, the 2010 census estimates that 37 percent of Americans live in this politically conservative region.
Southern Columbia students, especially those from rural areas, often come from places that are significantly more conservative than many of their classmates’ hometowns in the West and Northeast. The political distance between places like Corbin and Columbia’s distinctly liberal campus can seem chasmal as students move between the two extremes. The past few years have seen a surge of liberal activism at Columbia in support of sexual violence initiatives, divestment from private prisons and fossil fuels, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, among other causes. Southern students thus often find themselves readjusting to radically different political contexts after each semester at Columbia.
Many of the students I talked to linked the deep conservatism of their hometowns—and their decision to move to the liberal environs of Morningside Heights—to provincial bigotry and racism.
“It was super conservative, and everyone was super racist,” says Columbia College sophomore Jalen Fuller of his tiny hometown of Swansea, South Carolina. “I didn’t have any friends that were white and Democratic. They were all white Republicans.
Fuller says his frustration with the political conversation back home mounted as he began to feel that the conservative tilt of local discourse forced people from his own racial background to adopt political positions he felt were disingenuous.
“A lot of the time I would be frustrated because you would see black people siding with white people just to get attention, saying that George Bush is a good president. But they were just trying to suck up to the white people. That's really how it was my whole life.”
Fuller identifies as black and queer, and he describes his hometown as about 90 percent white. This is true for much of the conservative rural South. New York City has much larger black and Latino populations, groups that consistently vote liberal. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 80 percent of African Americans nationwide and 56 percent of Hispanic Americans in the United States identify as Democrats.
Weisert’s hometown is even less diverse than Fuller’s.
“We deal with African Americans in Corbin about as often as we deal with people from Iceland, as cynical as that may sound,” he says.
Weisert, who identifies as “extremely far left” and is the grandson of the mayor of Corbin, tells me that he has no problem with conservatism unless it is predicated on social issues, as he believes it is in Appalachia. He recalls highly religious rallies outside of the Whitley County courthouse, where, much like the nationally infamous Rowan County clerk Kim Davis, Whitley County clerk Kay Schwartz refused to award marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“I mean, I saw people holding up signs of the Whitley County courthouse during the whole court controversy, claiming that America is going to become Sodom and Gomorrah, for crying out loud,” Weisert says.
Feeling isolated in a one-sided political context contributed to an overriding sense of exclusion for some Southern students. Columbia College first-year Gage Hodgen attended Oklahoma Bible Academy in Enid, Oklahoma. Enid is in Garfield County, which Hodgen describes as one of the most conservative counties in the United States. He identifies as “more liberal than conservative” and feels disappointed with the legislative policies of the political right in his home state.
“I was definitely frustrated, especially with what I saw as the failures of established conservatism in the state,” Hodgen says. “Oklahoma consistently ranks at the bottom of the list for quality of life, whether that’s education, poverty, or obesity. And a lot of that is because of funding cuts, especially to education.”
The enduring influence of liberal activism on Columbia’s campus in New York City makes it a radically different space for political discourse than towns like Corbin, Swansea, and Enid.
For Columbia College first-year Andrew Ellison, who is from Georgetown, Texas, and identifies as liberal, this change of ideological scene was deliberate.
“I just really wanted to leave,” Ellison says. “I’m not telling everyone to leave Texas or that Texas sucks completely, it’s just that I’m glad to be here. I can still have disagreements with people, but I feel like they’re more reasonable and manageable.”
In his hometown, Ellison was part of a liberal minority, a phrase that is very seldom heard at Columbia.
“In my high school, I was in a club called the Young Liberals, which was a really tiny group of, like, five people and a really cool teacher of ours,” he says. “I’ve never suffered abuse because of it or anything, but it was never taken seriously. People always thought it was a joke when it was on the announcements, and I would have to defend it.”
Columbia is an ideological refuge for Fuller, who is very liberal but reluctant to identify as either Democratic or Republican.
“[Coming to Columbia] was honestly a breath of fresh air,” he says. “It was just like, thank you so much for not being crazy.”
Hodgen expresses a similar sense of appreciation, although his relief is qualified.
“I’m probably less often frustrated, but I’m also not sure that’s true,” he says. Hodgen’s willingness to challenge the status quo has not changed. “It’s the same, you still get frustrated with what people think. But it is a nice change, living amongst people who are more aligned with the way in which I think.”
For students who have spent their entire lives contesting a dominant narrative, discussing politics in a progressive atmosphere at Columbia can still be frustrating.
Weisert also notes some discontent with the state of political discourse here at Columbia. Even as he moves between Corbin and a prestigious Ivy League university, he describes his surprise upon encountering a largely uninformed subsection of college liberals at Columbia.
“I’m not going to claim that Columbia is a very enlightened place,” Weisert says. “I mean, if the libertarians want to go on about stupid liberals, we are a great place to find stupid liberals. I would say I was somewhat jarred by some of the lack of political knowledge. Or rather, whether you’re conservative or liberal, there’s a certain way that you need to treat people, in terms of political discourse, and I think it was jarring for me how people could be intolerant about tolerance.”
Weisert thinks that liberals feigning intellectual superiority on the basis of their political beliefs are doing themselves a disservice.
“It doesn’t matter if I scream and yell at people about believing something, because that makes me no better than the people who are screaming and yelling at the Whitley County court office.”
In some ways, the homogeneity of Columbia’s political landscape mirrors that of the rural American South. Ellison and Weisert take issue with the ways in which this homogeneity manifests itself in lackluster dialogue here, although neither specifically condone the American political right’s stance on social issues.
“Sometimes [Columbia] is a refuge, but other times it can be detrimental because everyone seems to agree on a lot of issues completely, and there’s very little debate on certain issues where there should be,” Ellison says. “With some areas, like helping out minorities and giving them spaces where they can be heard, I’m definitely not going to disagree with the fact that everyone should be on board with that. But there are just some political things that I wish there was a little more commentary on.”
Taking solace in sharing the political consensus of your peers can be tempting.
“I’ll admit that I have some of the privilege of not being forced to constantly defend my liberalism [at Columbia],” Weisert says. “And that can be both healthy and unhealthy, in my opinion. Like, people deserve their peace, but I think people should also have the imperative to grow in some way. I wouldn’t say Columbia actually intellectually challenges people on their political beliefs.”
Even the Core Curriculum, which commits itself to giving students the tools required of a citizen in a democracy, does not necessarily contribute to political diversity or openness.
“The only thing that the Core does is give people a general history of intellectual viewpoints. I think pundits are being disingenuous when they say that there is a radical curriculum at the Ivy League,” Weisert says.
Even if Columbia’s activist culture is not always radical or jarring for Southern students from places with largely unobstructed conservative majorities, it can be disconcerting to return to the South after each semester-long stint in New York City.
Fuller now looks at his family differently, even though they also identify as liberal. Anyone who falls short of far ideological left can seem conservative in the context of Columbia’s political culture.
“Even now, when I think of them as liberals, I still find them a little bit conservative, even though they call themselves liberal,” Fuller says.
For Weisert, moving back to Corbin from a place where liberal discourse is particularly welcome was difficult.
“It was tough,” Weisert says. “I think it was a miserable experience in a lot of ways. And I think I probably made it worse on myself because I’m a little bit self-righteous, and I’ll admit that. I get it from my own mother, who is the perpetual devil’s advocate. I definitely rubbed people the wrong way.”
For each of the students, having lived in both a very conservative place and a very liberal place seemed to provide them with a new, assured perspective from which to approach life at home.
Fuller, however, tends to avoid talking about politics when he returns to Swansea, because it can lead to frustratingly heated political arguments.
“I tend to close my mouth when I go home, unless it’s with my family,” Fuller says. “But outside of my family, I’m not talking about it because I’m not about to get jumped by anyone.”
Ellison chooses to engage in some dialogue with conservatives at home, but he toes a careful line.
“It’s made me mindful of trying to be more accepting of people and not countering people’s biases in a rude way, but just trying to make it known that I don’t think that’s a correct way to judge someone,” he says.
Weisert emphasizes that it is possible for him to appreciate the social appeal of being surrounded by politically liberal peers at Columbia without necessarily abandoning his roots.
“I think for a lot of people it can be a little bit disappointing coming back,” he says. “A lot of people can have shame for where they come from. I can’t say that people should love where they come from. I can’t really say I love Appalachia, in itself. But I think something that I’ve learned is that I don’t need to down the area as much as I probably would have used to. I was so used to wanting to try and fit into Columbia’s sort of ready-made culture that I lost a little bit of my own self-respect, in that matter.”
Weisert also supports treating people with opposing views sympathetically.
“You don’t teach tolerance by demanding tolerance,” he explains. “Tolerance isn’t a lecture class, it’s a seminar or a discussion. It’s hard work. I’ve definitely come from an environment where I think people have never even had the opportunity to even have to deal with it.”