“You’ve changed” was the thing that I heard most often after returning home from university. This was usually followed by “you think you’re too good for us now.” Now, I’m sure that people didn’t say these things because they were trying to be intentionally spiteful, but these kinds of sayings are symptomatic of the mentality that exists in small towns.
Anyone who has moved away from an area that has a systematically low progression to higher education most likely has experienced sayings like these after returning home.
The main thing I remember about living in a small town is that people tried to put everyone into a box. Neat, unspoken categories were created that everyone was required to fit into. Anyone who didn’t was made to feel like an outcast. Throughout my education, those boxes were undeniably clear. There were the people who did nothing but study, the people who borrowed fake ID’s to go out every weekend, the people who went to parties and were popular, and the people who were deemed too ‘weird’ to be worth anyone’s time. You couldn’t belong to more than one of these categories and attempting to break out of these boxes was impossible. These labels were damaging in so many ways and the whole atmosphere of the education system makes it difficult and traumatic for anyone who is the slightest bit different.
While this might sound trivial, the silent culture of judging others in small towns contributes to feelings of lacking identity. We don’t realise how much of our self-identity relies on other people until you can’t seem to construct an image of yourself because you fall outside of these categories.
Small town mentalities are manifested in much more harmful ways. The comments about people that are ‘different’ that you hear in pubs, on the streets or on the playground, I’ve now realised are actually microaggressions. Only by attending a university that was multicultural and diverse did I realise how narrow-minded the attitudes of a lot of people in my area are. The town that I grew up in was overwhelmingly made up of white, working-class people that were not particularly poverty-stricken but at the same time filled with resentment at anyone who didn’t conform to their outlook on the world.
Living in an area which lacks diversity and at the same time opportunity meant that the town I grew up in had catastrophically low levels of ambition and aspiration. I remember having a new science teacher one year at school who was shocked at how non-existent the goals and dreams of the kids he had met from my town were. Over the years, I have noticed that the people who didn’t make any effort to better themselves were the ones that lived comfortable lives without any desire for anything different. They were perfectly happy to live in the same place for the rest of their lives, doing the same jobs that their parents do – and that’s completely ok, but not everyone wants that. I am fully aware that not everyone has the same opportunities available to them as I did, but what I dislike about small-town mentality is that it deems it better to settle and be comfortable than to take any sort of risk.
“All of a sudden, those unspoken boxes that mattered so much at home didn’t exist.”
University changed my life completely. I finally felt as though I fitted in. I could be myself, wear what I want and do whatever I wanted. All of a sudden, those unspoken boxes that mattered so much at home didn’t exist. I found friends and people like me and most of all, I learned about the world.
Coming back from university made me feel like I was being put back in those boxes again. As more and more of my friends from home dropped out within months of starting their first year at university, I realised how true it was that people from my town had such low opinions of themselves. Those boxes that they’d thrived off for years were suddenly gone.
It’s not the fault of anyone in particular that small towns tend to be like this. The environment is claustrophobic and stagnant. The lack of diversity, at least in my experience, and lack of aspirations create mentalities that are stuck in their ways and not conducive to growth. Not everyone can or wants to leave the place that they grew up, but I just want to reassure anyone who has ever felt suffocated by their home that it does get better. While I could never speak for people of colour or LGBTQ+ people who would undoubtedly have much worse experiences in these environments, I want anyone who has ever felt like they have outgrown the place they grew up to know that it’s normal.
I often wonder what I would say to the person that I was before I went away to university. The main thing I would want to say to her is: it will get better. I’m no longer the seventeen-year-old who felt trapped in a small-town and struggled to find her place in the world. I wish I could tell anyone living in a place that has been home to them for years but that couldn’t feel more alien: you’re not alone or weird for feeling this way.
It’s normal to feel as though you’ve outgrown somewhere – don’t feel as though you must change back to fit in when you go home. We’re all unique individuals and growing up in areas that stay the same is a part of who you are, but it doesn’t need to define you.