These Harvard Kids Got the Lesson of Their Lives in the Heartland

Salena Zito  Jun 26, 2018

On a blustery afternoon in April, I filed into a van along with 10 students from Harvard University. We had just spent the last two days in Chicopee, Massachusetts, where we had chatted with the police chief and his force, the mayor and his staff, small business owners, waitresses and firemen about their struggles living in small-town America.

The undergrads were buzzing with their impressions. Chicopee is about 90 miles west of their prestigious university in Cambridge, but when it comes to shared experience, it might as well have been 1,000 light-years away.

We were only a few days into a new project I had developed with the Harvard Institute of Politics called the Main Street and Back Roads of America: A Journalism Workshop, where students were immersed in small-town America. Even though these kids had almost all been raised in the United States, our journey sometimes felt like an anthropology course, as though they were seeing the rest of the country for the first time. And this was their opening lesson.

I have been a national political journalist for nearly 15 years. Whenever and wherever I travel in this country, I abide by a few simple rules: no planes, no interstates and no hotels.

And definitely no chain restaurants.

The reason is simple: Planes fly over and interstates swiftly pass by what’s really happening in the suburbs, towns and exurbs of this nation. Staying in a hotel doesn’t give me the same connection I can get staying in a bed-and-breakfast where the first person I meet is a businessperson who runs the place and knows all the neighborhood secrets. The same is true of going to locally owned restaurants versus chain restaurants.

Also, you have to spend time in a community to really report on it. Parachuting in for a few hours to interview the locals can lead to flawed evaluations. When you are short on time, your instincts can get blurred and you can gravitate toward the shiny objects, the oddball people and conditions that make the most noise, instead of having a broader focus on the bigger, fuller picture.

Those simple rules are what intrigued students at the Harvard Institute of Politics, or IOP, after hearing me speak at a Pizza and Politics event on the school campus last fall.

Days after my speech, two IOP directors said the students wanted to learn more from me. I told them the best course would be a total immersion into the less-populated parts of the country, no different from the way I approach my daily job.

Chris Kuang, a 20-year-old rising junior from Winchester, Massachusetts, and Sam Kessler, a 21-year-old rising senior from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, led the charge, recruiting 18 other students for the class, which began in February.

Because Kuang is chair of the Harvard Political Union, the nation’s oldest collegiate debating society, and Kessler is president of the Harvard Political Review, they were both hungry to learn what shapes people’s voting habits — particularly after the 2016 election, when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in an upset almost no one predicted.

“The best way to blow apart a stereotype is to challenge it,” Kuang, an applied math and economics major, told me.

So, before we started traveling, we held several workshops to discuss their ideas about the “other” America.

Nearly all of them said they didn’t know what life was like outside the coastal cities and states. Only one student, 20-year-old Henna Hundal, had grown up in a rural environment — an almond farm in Turlock, California — while Kessler, a computer science major, was the only member of the class who had ever fired a gun. The students ranged in age from 19 to 21, with an equal number of girls and boys and a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The majority of them hailed from cities and suburbs in blue states along the East and West coasts. One was from Wales.

They admitted they had been fed a steady diet of stereotypes about small towns and their folk: “Backward,” “no longer useful,” “uneducated or undereducated” and “angry and filled with a trace of bigotry” were all phrases that came up.

And so, we embarked on our journey. For the next few weeks, I would conduct three classes in rural and industrial towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Most of the trips were a two- to four-night stay, getting from place to place in a van and sleeping in locally owned B&Bs.

While no one got college credit or earned a grade, the students all passed my most important test: They had taken a walk down Main Street and made a lot more friends than judgments. They had learned that in order to understand a country’s politics, you first have to understand its people. That means getting out of your bubble and spending time away from people like you. If you don’t, Kuang said, “you lose the ability to spark the evolution needed to bridge the country’s divide.”

The students even came up with a better name for the project. They called it #IOPening — a hashtag blending their eye-opening experiences with the acronym for their institute.

In our final week, the class attended Mass at St. Stanislaus, a Polish church in the Strip District of downtown Pittsburgh. Before then, only two of my students had set foot in a Catholic church.

At the end of Mass, an older gentleman came up to me and said how nice it was to see young people dressed up and going to church. When I told him they were students from Harvard, he beamed and said: “I have been reading for years that college kids these days are thin-skinned — what’s that word … ? Snowbirds, snowflakes, anyways … that they have no easiness with meeting someone new or trying something different or won’t be open to opposing opinions.”

He smiled as he gave my kids an approving thumbs-up and said, “Don’t you just love when a stereotype is blown up right in front of you?”

Salena Zito is the co-author of The Great Revolt

These Harvard Kids Got the Lesson of Their Lives in the Heartland