Editor’s Note: A version of this story about first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
When Gabriel Clark graduated from high school in 2019, the Idaho Falls native didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment. “I didn’t have aspirations or a goal. I felt lost,” Clark says.
When he was in middle school, he had dreamed of going to Stanford University as a chemical engineer. But he struggled with his grades in high school — as well as with depression, an eating disorder, and family challenges after his electrician father was injured on the job. Plus, the odds were stacked against him: One analysis of Stanford data found that just 5% of its students come from rural areas.
By the time he earned his diploma, the big dreams he once had felt worlds apart from his reality.
He decided to take a gap year before heading to college. The summer after high school, he worked at a cemetery, and noticed how he started to feel better as he worked long days in the sun. His self-esteem improved even more after he started working at the aquatic center, working his way up from being a cashier to a lifeguard, despite not being much of a swimmer before.
“I was doing Tarzan swimming — head out of the water, paddling,” he says. But after taking classes to improve, he found himself not just feeling more confident as a swimmer, but about his body as well.
“I found my drive there. I had done something difficult, had proved to myself that I had that tenacity,” Clark says.
In 2020, Clark wanted to return to school.
He chose the College of Eastern Idaho, which was affordable and close by. He worried it wouldn’t be as good of an education as a four-year university. But at least, if things didn’t work out, at least he would still be living at home, with his support system fully in place.
Only, this time, things did work out. Motivated by the fact that he was choosing to attend the college, investing his time and money into it, Clark got straight A’s in his first semester. He excelled in presentations, having loved doing debate club and delivering speeches as a high schooler.
That confident boost helped him see that maybe Stanford wasn’t an impossibility any more. It wouldn’t be easy — coming from a rural area, Clark worried that he didn’t have the same resources or connections of his urban and suburban peers. But he thought he had a shot.
“I told myself that just because those opportunities haven’t been created before doesn’t mean I can’t create them myself,” he said.
Community College Connections
Jill Kirkham, a social sciences professor, noticed his ability, and encouraged it. ‘You are so quiet in class, but your performance, and ability to speak, is incredible. You have so much potential,’ he remembers her saying.
That conversation, and many others from his teachers and peers at the community college, gave Clark a newfound confidence in himself.
“When I first came to CEI, I was a reserved and shy student. I was beaten down by my past experiences,” Clark says. “If I didn’t have that support, I don’t think I would have been able to blossom the way I did.”
It wasn’t all easy. A nasty bout of COVID-19 put him behind in classes in 2022. But he recovered. And in the coming year, he became head ambassador of a local community outreach program and the vice president of the student senate. He started the college’s first debate team, making the finals in every competition they entered and propelling them to the community college national competition in Washington, D.C.
More Rural Higher Ed News
WVU backlash brews. Faculty and students are organizing as West Virginia University grapples with a $45 million budget gap that has led it to cut staff, up tuition, and rethink its course offerings, according to this report from the nonprofit newsroom West Virginia Watch. “It seems there’s no way to argue against this and be heard. People want to have a stake in what happens,” Ron Dulaney Jr., an associate professor of Interior Architecture, said at a meeting of campus employees and students.
- Last act? Among the WVU courses potentially up for the chopping block is one of the last puppetry programs in the country, which the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Emma Pettit explored in depth earlier this month.
When Ashlee met Evelyn. I recently visited southwest Kansas and explored how powerful having a “near-peer” adviser was for a rural Latina student in Garden City, writing about it in this Open Campus piece co-published with USA Today.
Falling short. In California, community colleges are falling short of their own goals for transfer rates to four-year universities, as Adam Echelman, our community colleges reporter at partner CalMatters, writes with data reporter Erica Yee. Their findings found that rural students were particularly less likely to transfer than their peers in more urban and affluent parts of the state.
Clark told Kirkham about his dream to go to Stanford. The professor pointed him to a Stanford alumnus who was now the executive director of the Museum of Idaho. The founding president of CEI, Rick Aman, wrote one of his recommendation letters.
That support bolstered him, even when he felt unsure. He remembers looking up Stanford’s admissions numbers for transfers like him (in 2022, Stanford accepted just 1.8% of the 3,141 students who applied to transfer).
The same week of his community college graduation, this past May, Clark learned that he had received the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation undergraduate transfer scholarship, which offers up to $55,000 for either two or three years, however long it will take a community college student to complete a bachelor’s degree.
That meant he would be able to afford Stanford — if he got in.
He knew that the decision would come that Friday at 6 p.m., and that he would be greeted by red confetti if he had been accepted.
He lit a Beyonce candle, and pulled his mother into his bedroom. He waited by his computer, repeating to himself again and again the words that had become like a mantra to him: It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.
Finally, he clicked the button … and watched the red confetti fill his screen.
“I just went crazy,” Clark says. “It was a moment of excitement, and just pure inner joy.”