Okay, the transition wasn’t sudden. I was born in the city of Port-au-Prince and lived there until I was 12, when my family moved to Boston. While I spent time abroad—never more than a year—I always lived in a metropolis. When my husband and I got married we decided to move to the suburbs.
We immediately embraced the calm of our new little town of 10,000 people and only 5 square miles in total area. We loved it. We had more land than we could have imagined owning in the city. The unadulterated sky was always full of stars. In the mornings, the birds always chirped. We heard the frogs and cicadas and saw fireflies from time to time in the evenings. We saw deer. We heard and saw woodpeckers. The dew rising over the fields and ponds was always a heavenly sight. Even the thick, impenetrable fog that sometimes made driving impossible had its own charm. This Caribbean girl learned to love the first few snowfalls of the year, even if it meant freezing cold weather. The orchards made for great summer and fall activities once we had kids. We fully embraced suburban life.
How the Rest of the Country Looked from New England
We lived in our little town for 14 years and loved it. This summer, I began my tenure as President of Cumberland County College in Vineland, New Jersey. The college is located in the largest city in the state in terms of total area, but it is also the smallest in terms of population. This is because the city mostly consists of farms. Suburban living helped with my transition to a primarily rural area. Breaking out of the northeast bubble has been most enlightening.
Living in the northeast, I can now say, was like living in a bubble. With all of its elite colleges and wealth, New England is unlike any other part of the country. Well, maybe California, but California also has its unique characteristics. Living in Massachusetts, we watched the way the rest of the country lives on television and we, at least in the academic community, thought that we were special. The closest glimpses I got of the rest of the country were during media coverage of presidential elections. County fairs, speeches, pie festivals, veteran gatherings, and all of those activities politicians attend in an effort to portray that they understand the local people were my exposure to the rest of the country.
Understanding Rural Challenges
Living in rural New Jersey, I understand the struggles of farmers, migrant communities, coastal areas south enough to be susceptible to hurricanes and tropical storms. I understand places hard hit by recessions, places once booming with industries that provided blue collar jobs that served as a pathway to the middle class for post-World War II immigrants and those who migrated from the south. I now understand what it is to feel like your county is at the cusp of greatness, but when the economy rebounds, you just don’t take off like you thought you would. It’s not easy.
The most amazing part about living here in my county, Cumberland County, is the lack of pretense. No one is rushing to tell you which prestigious university they attended, how many publications they had last year, how many patents they have outstanding or which disease they will likely cure next year, regardless of how many before them have tried.
Grateful to the Northeast while Moving Forward
People here care deeply about solving real life problems, about working together to advance the county so that the current and future generations of youth have more than we do. I am being re-acculturated away from the northeast academic dogma. I am grateful for the social and academic capital I amassed in the northeast and at those fancy schools because I know how resource-rich institutions acquire and build on their wealth to propel their students and alumni farther, faster, better. My students, young and old, are even more deserving. I am also grateful for my northeast education for that is where I learned to speak Spanish, which gives me a great advantage working at an Hispanic-Serving Institution and in my county.
So, as I enter my first academic year at Cumberland County College, we’re ready to build a new college. We are change-ready and future-ready. I am one of many local and regional leaders working to make sure that we are not left behind when the next wave of economic prosperity comes. We are zealously building our capacity, infrastructure, systems and processes to leap into the future. May your academic year be also as exciting.
Dr. Yves Salomon-Fernandez is President of Cumberland County College in Vineland, New Jersey in the USA.
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