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Why many rural North Carolina women do not pursue post secondary education

Growing up in rural North Carolina, there are a lot of views and traditions that have not yet modernized. Of those traditions, girls are socialized to become wives and mothers—many receiving the message that this is their primary duty. I recall a number of girls that I graduated high school with planning their weddings immediately following graduation. Many others began having children during and immediately following high school, which effectively ended their education, unless they had strong family support.

I think of a friend who is nearly my age. She was one of those bright girls who grew up with parents who convinced her that she should always have a boyfriend and focus more attention on those types of relationships than her own studies. As a result of a relationship that began when she was 16, she gave birth to a son at 17 and a daughter shortly after. Because she was a senior when she became pregnant, she was able to complete her high school education shortly before his birth. However, she has struggled to build the life she wants for her children. She has a desire to earn more, but has found it difficult without a degree. Now, with four children, she finds it nearly impossible to attend college classes and keep up with her family responsibilities. She has started and stopped many times. Now in her 30s, she has yet to complete any post secondary coursework.

Interestingly, post secondary educational opportunities are abundant in our community. There is a community college, a university, a bible college and a network of other educational institutions throughout the state, however, only about half of my graduating class took advantage of the opportunities and far fewer completed their post secondary education. Of those who discontinued their education, I noticed that their worlds began to shrink and they began to forget the dreams that they once had. Many have settled for jobs that are far less than their abilities and needed income levels because of their lack of degrees.

I was an exception to this cultural norm because my father, an educator, made me promise that I would at least wait until I graduated from college to get married, despite what other family and community members were encouraging me to do. It turned out to be a good thing that I waited because the relationship I had with my high school sweetheart ran its course before I finished college. This outcome was similar to the other relationships that my classmates had ended or delayed their education to maintain.

To overcome this, the views of our community need to change. While some progress has been made over the years, we have to continue to change the mindset of “I didn’t finish high school and I did just fine, so you will too.” There has to be a consideration that there is more outside of our small town and that huge, life altering decisions don’t have to be made so early in life. The community should encourage women to wait until after they mature and are educated before marrying and beginning to have babies. From an early age, girls should be encouraged to explore other options and see more of the world than what can be seen from this county. They should know the importance of exploring science, mathematics and international issues in addition to home economics.

The women of our community have to also develop a will of their own to move beyond their family’s expectations. While this is much easier said than done, the desire to have more is born in one’s own heart. She has to have the determination and self-discipline to fight for herself to help change the minds of others. She will have to be able to show them what change looks like as well as tell them.

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