Appalachia stereotypes subject of dialogue

By Rebecca Sweeney

When Kristy Tsou came to UK, she was afraid to participate and ask questions during class because of how she felt her peers would perceive her.

Tsou, a sociology graduate student, was one of five panelists who told personal stories about being from Appalachia during last night’s Diversity Dialogue, titled “Talk from Appalachia,” sponsored by the Student Diversity Engagement and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

Tsou was afraid that because of her accent, people would assume that all of the stereotypes about Appalachian people would apply to her.

“Generally, redneck jokes are more accepted than other racial jokes,” Tsou said.

Stereotypes affect the group of people they’re about, but they also change how outsiders view the group, Tsou said.

Many Appalachian economies are moving from extraction-based industries, such as coal mines, to service industries, which will require more people, Tsou said.

“People might be afraid to enter the Appalachian region because of stereotypes they’ve heard about,” she said.

Tsou recommended keeping lines of communication open between people of different groups and encouraged Appalachians to “strive to show people how capable we are.”

Karima Samadi, dietetics major and College of Agriculture ambassador, moved to Harlan, Ky., from Albuquerque, N.M., and discussed the difficult time she had adjusting.

“I found my niche in two clubs,” Samadi said. She said black people embraced her because of her skin color, and the drama club was where she felt that she fit in with the nerds.

Samadi said sometimes stereotypes can be true.

“To me, mountain people are polite,” she said. “They make homemade biscuits and the best apple butter you’ll ever taste.”

Lara May Vest, a student affairs officer at UK from West Liberty, Ky., in Morgan County, didn’t realize that she was Appalachian until she received a letter from UK inviting her, as an Appalachian UK student, to attend a leadership program.

Vest minored in Appalachian studies while a student at UK and said she thought it was awesome that people were writing books about and studying Appalachians.

“I love this region, and I want people to appreciate it for what it stands for,” she said.

Neomia Hagans graduated from UK in the first class of Robinson Scholars, a program that began in 1997 to support students who might encounter economic, cultural or institutional set backs while trying to complete their college degrees. She said it’s difficult for Appalachian students to transition from their hometowns to college.

“We go from a small environment to a diverse school like UK, and we don’t know where we fit in,” said Hagans, who’s from Knott County. “At home, we’re the star student, but here, we’re only a glimmer of the twilight.”

Mahjabeen Rafiuddin, the director of Student Diversity Engagement, said she hopes the Diversity Dialogue honored Appalachian students and challenged other students to see their struggles.

“The conversation of personal stories is something we don’t get very often at UK and I think that’s important,” Rafiuddin said.

Rafiuddin said her goal is for all students to go to dialogues that are about people different from themselves and respect each other.