Forum 2017: What Educators Can Learn from J.D. Vance, Author of Hillbilly Elegy
Forum 2017: What Educators Can Learn from J.D. Vance, Author of Hillbilly ElegyCrystal Barrick, Assistant Director, Communications
It didn’t take long for J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, to become a best seller.
“Seldom does a book come along with such perfect timing,” said Stefanie Sanford, chief of Global Policy and External Relations at the College Board, while introducing Vance at this year’s Forum. “The book pulled back the curtain on a section of America that went from invisible to undeniable with Trump’s victory. It’s a smart and vivid take on an America in crisis that rings deeply true in our troubled times.”
Vance’s story—the story of a student who grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky and a Rust Belt town in southern Ohio, who enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in Iraq, and who eventually attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School—was instructive and inspiring for Forum attendees. While many of us are deeply preoccupied by questions like How can we remove barriers to success for more low-income and first-generation students? and What can colleges and universities do to live up to their potential as engines of upward mobility?, Vance gives voice to the lived experience behind them. As Sanford pointed out, “[Those questions] are not technocratic or bureaucratic. Vance reminds us that they are complicated and deeply human.”
Vance told Forum attendees his path to college was far from linear. He was a good student who stayed out of trouble—thanks in large part to his grandmother, Mamaw—but he hit a barrier early in the college application process: the parental income section of the FAFSA. Finding his father’s information would be too complicated, he thought, and he remembered asking himself: “If I can’t even fill out the forms, how could I possibly live the independent college life?” This was the first of many times Vance felt his rural upbringing made him “a cultural outsider.”
Throughout college and early in his career, Vance said, “It seemed to me that everyone knew the answers”—everyone except him. But as he got older, he realized that wasn’t true. He realized moments like his struggle with the FAFSA were "replicating themselves all across the country," and “maybe too few kids from where I came from came to live the American Dream.” That's what drove him to write Hillbilly Elegy.
Vance asked us to keep students like him in mind during our daily work, and left us with a number of thought-provoking questions:
- How can we make college feel more like a part of rural communities, so families don’t feel like they’re losing their kids to higher education? “Don’t just ask ‘How do we fund kids, or get them to take tests, or apply to college,'” he said, “But ask how to make it seem like less of a foreign territory.”
- How can we honor all the complex “multi-dimensionalities” of students’ identities? As a veteran and an older-than-average undergraduate, Vance didn’t always feel comfortable with his peers, inside or outside the classroom. He urged higher education professionals to think about how to better support their non-traditional students.
- Once a first-generation or low-income student gets into college, how can we help them with the next steps? For example: If they don’t have the same supports and networks as their more affluent or savvy peers, how to do we help them look and apply for the right jobs?
Since writing Hillbilly Elegy, Vance has been interviewed by Charlie Rose, Terry Gross, Megyn Kelly, and countless others. But at Forum, College Board President and CEO David Coleman put a classroom-style spin on the usual interview format: he led everyone through a close reading of specific Hillbilly Elegy passages, and asked Vance to respond.
As Vance discussed certain parts of his book, he offered candid insight into his life and writing process. And, as he dove into the harrowing details of domestic violence and the opioid crisis—“demons” that have followed him since childhood—he admitted he didn’t exactly know how to solve these problems. But through writing Hillbilly Elegy, and participating in events like Forum, he thought, “Maybe I could start a conversation.”