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FROM READERS: For MU student from Ozarks, dreams not defined by perceptions

Friday, July 6, 2012 | 10:34 a.m. CDT

Zack Martin is a junior  journalism major at MU. He is from Willow Springs, 15 minutes west of Mountain View. He has called the Ozarks home since he was 5, when he moved there from the northern part of the state. This article was written in response to a Missourian article published on July 2 about a group of friends' adjustment to college in West Plains, which is part of the American Next project.

I was at the intersection of Rock Quarry and Stadium, waiting in the line of traffic that seems to appear from nowhere in Columbia, and scrolling through Facebook when I noticed two familiar names put together, the Missourian and West Plains. Needless to say I was curious as to why the newspaper of my adopted hometown would be writing about my former, which was three hours and 125 curvy two lane miles away. Finally getting out of traffic and having an opportunity to read the full story, I took in what was to be a journey through the life of four college students in the poverty-stricken, meth-addled, ignorant hills of the southern Missouri Ozarks; also known by the name "home" for the past 15 years.

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As I read I discovered that I was a statistical casualty, being one of the students who transferred from MSU-West Plains to the University of Missouri before I had obtained my associate's. I learned that being from there meant I was an anomaly for thinking beyond high school for education, and that I am on my way to "shaking off the inheritance of poverty."

This was news to me.

I graduated 22nd out of 79 in the class of 2010 from Willow Springs High School, in a town (Willow Springs) of roughly 2,100, 15 miles west of archrival Mountain View, 20 miles north of West Plains, and in the heart of the region of contention. I had always known I would go to college; the only question would be where? Six applications and six acceptances later I chose the University of Missouri, to pursue a degree at what is the "Harvard Law" of journalism schools.

Then I panicked. Could I afford it? The question had never really crossed my mind before and it created enough internal tension for me to finally do a complete 180 and utilize A+ (like so many before) and attend Missouri State University-West Plains. I won’t lie, I was not happy about another year in my parent’s house, but I couldn’t argue with all expenses paid, and in the end I made friendships I carry on even as I live in Columbia. This entire time I was focused on finances I had never considered it a result of my location, or that me leaving West Plains was a result of some great escape from the third world.

This situation is similar to friends of mine who also attend school outside of West Plains. The instant I posted my friend Jessica Girdler (8th in our class, she just enjoyed studying more) texted me, and we began a conversation discussing the problems with which our homes are being portrayed in a state where everything south of I-44 may as well have not evolved as far as anyone is concerned. Jessie is a junior at Saint Louis University. Pretty soon other former classmates chimed in, from Missouri Southern, Cottey, Missouri State-Springfield. None of us could understand why we (Southern Missourians) were the targets of a degrading article that assumed our goals stopped at the county line, and where a career at McDonald’s was the best life had to offer.

The students the article showed did not reflect situations I found myself in at West Plains, but they did show situations I know exist, not just in West Plains but in any college town. A belly shot in West Plains is no different than one in Columbia except you replace the camo with a Vineyard Vines tee. When I posted about the article on Facebook, many friends from West Plains saw it as an attack on the school. I don’t see it that way as much as an attack on what students at the school are seen as being able to achieve. That students who leave the area and get jobs or continue our education outside of the Ozarks do so in spite of our home, while in reality we do so because of it. We understand the amount of work that getting someplace can take, that jobs aren’t always dependable, and if you want to succeed, you have to put forth the effort.

In the end what seemed to be the worst part of the article was its slavish adherence to stereotypes of the poor hill kids in the Ozarks, you never saw a different perspective, which would have been quickly provided if anyone had ever bothered to ask.

I write this on the fifth of July, a day after we celebrate American independence and the pursuit of the American Dream, which is what the America Next series is all about, capturing the ideas and dreams of young people in print as we move on in a very interesting and trying time. In some ways, as much as it pains me to say, I can relate to the girls in the article in that my dreams are still "vague…idealistic and unformed," I have goals that I don’t necessarily know how to meet.

Fortunately I can draw on my educated and gainfully employed family and my friends from back home for help in forming these dreams. So I finish this sitting in my apartment, just after my Political Science class and before my shift at work and think about how the article got some things right, but so much wrong, and how a slight amendment to my dream is to succeed on my terms, not because I am from a poverty stricken, meth-addled, ignorant part of the state, but because that is where you think I am from.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.


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