Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
When I first met Nick Fouriezos and heard about the work he was doing, I was eager to get a conversation going. Nick is a seasoned news reporter who’s covered a lot of ground over the years, but his latest job has him digging specifically into the topic of rural higher education. That combination of words — rural and higher education — holds a lot of meaning for me.
My college journey started close to home. I got my first degree from the small-town community college just down the street from where I grew up. The two years I spent on that campus played an important role in helping me imagine a world of possibilities for myself. After that, I went on to attend my state’s major university system, in no small part due to the generosity of scholarships and programs targeted at high-achieving rural kids. Through my undergraduate and graduate studies, the further I got from my hometown, the more I felt it shaping how I carried myself and approached each day of academic inquiry, professional pursuit, and personal discovery.
That’s why I have no doubt about the richness Nick will find on his new beat. He and I have already spent a good chunk of time talking about the importance of community colleges, the unique challenges of rural university students, the political and cultural dynamics of deciding to pursue higher education, and much more. We weren’t able to cover nearly enough of that good stuff in this interview, but worry not, you can easily follow Nick’s reporting by signing up for his newsletter on rural higher ed, and we’ll be re-publishing his reporting in the Yonder in the days to come.
In the meantime, enjoy this stage-setting conversation, which includes tidbits on regional traditions and stories from the road, cherished items from our coffee mug collections, and can’t-miss references to classic songs by The Clash and supposed hillbillies from ancient Greece.
Adam B. Giorgi, The Daily Yonder: Let’s start with the why question. You are in effect the first and only national reporter in the United States covering rural higher education. Why was it important to your newsroom, Open Campus, to pursue this beat in particular? And what drew you to the role?
Nick Fouriezos: OpenCampus was created to directly address the gaps in higher education coverage that exist across the United States. That gap is most directly evident in the significant number of major cities that don’t have a single dedicated reporter covering higher ed. However, it’s also clear to anybody in this space that certain beats, like rural higher ed, are also woefully under-covered. As a Washington D.C. correspondent the last six years, it shocked me when I found that nobody nationally was covering this specific beat — particularly because rural gets so much lip service by American leaders, from CEOs trying to brush up their everyman bromides to politicians at every level promising rural restoration.
It also was a subject that deeply mattered to me: I grew up at the foothills of Appalachia, at that strange urban-rural crossroads in north Georgia. As a national reporter, I had demonstrated an interest in complicating our national narratives around rural, spotlighting pipeline fights fought by conservatives along the Savannah River and transgender farmers in Nebraska, factory towns where locals credited immigrants with saving their economies and other stories. The chance to help develop stories and build a community around rural higher ed felt like a dream opportunity for me, especially as I personally witnessed the ways college campuses across the country are the center of the difficult decisions rural folks must decide: should I stay or should I go, as The Clash would put it.
DY: What are some of your initial reporting goals? As you’ve started exploring the subject and talking to folks in the world of rural higher ed, what issues have stood out as things worth digging into first?
NF: What really stood out immediately is how thin our understanding of rural, from a policy and educational perspective, really is. As I mention in my first edition of Mile Markers, this thin understanding makes it difficult to target funding toward actually improving outcomes for rural colleges and rural students. I’m also fascinated by the hidden costs and barriers of college, which we see in studies showing how few colleges actually have public transit — which is a major problem, particularly in a country where a $400 surprise bill (such as a flat tire or a car wreck) can be a huge roadblock for many families, much less students. I particularly want to help draw into focus the disparities between the laws we pass and their actual implementation on the ground. And eventually I also want my reporting, particularly in the newsletter, to become a resource for under-resourced and harried rural administrators to see new opportunities — whether by posting rural grants or highlighting examples of success that can be replicated.
DY: Prior to starting this job, you’ve done reporting in all 50 states and around the world, including in many rural places off the beaten path. What have been some of your favorite memories from the road or experiences that really left a mark?
NF: In 2017, after witnessing a presidential election I felt ignored many of the crucial stories states faced, I proposed and led a project called States of the Nation. Spending a week in each state, I tried to reintroduce people to their neighbors by writing about a more complicated and nuanced America. And while I interviewed dozens of governors, senators, CEOs and scientists in that year, I remember other folks as my favorite interviews — the white hog farmer in the upper peninsula of Michigan, the Iranian hookah shop owner in the Ozarks of Arkansas, the Mississippi Delta juke joint owner who insisted the blues wasn’t dying even as he himself faced severe medical complications. People are often surprised when I tell them that my favorite states were places like Mississippi, Oregon, and West Virginia, but it was precisely the places where you can acutely feel the culture, as well as the challenges and opportunities they face, that inspired me the most. Plus, nothing beats the local flavor of being in a Morgantown bar singing along to “Sweet Caroline” while adding their ad libbed refrain “Eat Sh*t Pitt.”
DY: In your travels, have you developed any practices for building trust with folks and avoiding extractive practices and traps like “parachute journalism” that can alienate local communities? What do you draw upon, if anything, when striving to tell people’s stories in a way that’s respectful and thoughtful but clear-eyed and candid?
It was definitely a major concern of mine that this project — which, by necessity, had to move quickly between states — would fall into the traps of the parachute journalism genre. Avoiding those pitfalls was a little easier because the outlet, OZY Magazine, had made a commitment to telling stories that other outlets hadn’t. As such, there were no overly simplified narratives about West Virginia coal miners, for example. Wherever possible, I tried to tell the stories not through my own eyes but through the eyes of the people I covered. When I went to the Southside of Chicago to tell the story of the new Chicago police chief, for example, I asked a local community journalist who grew up there to give me his tour of the neighborhood — he later told me that another outlet, a TV crew, had asked him to [do] something similar but to “only take them to the ‘safe’ parts of town.'” That mentality deeply offended me. These people live in these neighborhoods and places every day — they sleep here, work here, get their groceries here. If you can’t spend a single day living in that experience out of misplaced fear, then maybe you shouldn’t be the one trying to tell their stories. My work wasn’t always perfect, I’m sure, but you get closer to getting it right by caring.
DY: In the first edition of your new email newsletter on the subject of rural higher ed you offered a challenge to your readers with a fun incentive. Those who forwarded the newsletter to friends and colleagues would have a chance to win a “rural-themed coffee mug,” hand selected and curated by you. It reminded me of how some late night TV hosts will spotlight local TV affiliates using mugs on their desks. Tell me more about your mug collection and your curation sensibilities. From beloved local bookshops to campus stores at small colleges, I have to imagine there are some fun possibilities here.
NF: Yes, I am not special in loving coffee, but I do have a special affinity for mugs. My favorite mug is a perfect example of the rural curation: It’s a mug from Square Books, the famous Oxford, Mississippi bookstore, that the journalist Wright Thompson gave me as a gift when I was reporting there. On it is a fantastic Barry Hannah quote: “The Deep South may be wretched, but it sure can howl.”
Rural areas are often full of ghosts, from literal ghost towns in the deserts of Arizona to much of the South that I call home. Some other favorites are a mug with a hand-painted canary by an Italian artist from my late grandmother, as well as a gorgeous gold-leafed mug from Meteora, Greece, which I got while running the Athens marathon and visiting my ancestral villages in the Peloponnesian peninsula … the home of Sparta which, I was told perhaps fittingly, is known as [home to] the “hillbillies” of Greece (in this one case specifically, I’ll accept the moniker with pride rather than as a pejorative).
DY: Last up, a two-parter for you. One, what have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately that our readers might enjoy giving a look? And two, do you have a favorite fictional pop culture college, from books, movies, or TV, rural or otherwise?
NF: I’ve been reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon, which was a gift from my editor Scott Smallwood and perfect for my beat. Methland by Nick Reding is definitely a must-read. It’s a few years old now, but I loved the podcast Sh*t town, Alabama when it came out, particularly for its eccentric characters. There are a number of great podcasts emerging as well around rural higher education, particularly the Rural College Student Experience podcast. As far as fictional ones, obviously the TV show Friday Night Lights is a classic. I’ve heard that Yellowstone is good and it certainly has an eclectic cast, but I have yet to start watching it.
You can follow along with Nick’s coverage of rural higher ed by subscribing to his twice-monthly newsletter, Mile Markers. And keep an eye out for his reporting in the Daily Yonder and at www.opencampusmedia.org.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.