09/25/2012 12:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's It Like To Come to Harvard from the South?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
By Jonathan Gattman, Harvard Alumnus

The Crimson did an article on this while I was a freshman at Harvard in which I was quoted.

To expand on it... I came to Harvard from rural NW Alabama. I grew up fifteen miles outside of a city of thirty thousand, where I graduated from a public high school in a class of one hundred. I think my upbringing was very much what many think of as stereotypical 'Southern.' I lived on a dirt road, several of my friends grew up in trailers, many people hunted, three of the top five of my class had had a child or were pregnant by graduation, football was big, etc. I've tried to compile various observations I have from reflecting back ten years ago...


Most people out of the South don't realize it, but there are several southern accents. Movies generally feature the aristocratic, syrupy coastal accent (Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil showcases these). I had the audial opposite of that. My words were shortened and chopped down, and the cadence was quick and not melodic; the closest I've heard in a movie is Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line (makes sense as she is from the area). My accent, while common in northern Alabama and southern Tennessee, was so dissimilar to what people expected a southern accent to sound like that I was frequently asked if I was Australian. Just having an accent put me in a unique category. Most southerners at Harvard do not have southern accents, often because their parents don't and their classmates in school didn't because their parents didn't, or they went to boarding school. When I was a freshman, I actually knew of only two other guys from the south in the entire school who had more than a hint of a southern accent.

The fascination with my accent caught me somewhat off-guard. Back home in high school, I had been teased because my classmates thought I spoke like a Yankee; my parents did not have southern accents and mine was due to picking it up from my classmates who had very thick drawls, resulting in mine being a lighter echo of theirs. Yet at Harvard, my accent was strong enough to lead to my sole conversation with Natalie Portman, who, after hearing me talk with some others in a group we were both standing in, asked me "Do you always talk like that?"


My colloquialisms were different from my classmates. There is the obvious 'coke' vs. 'pop' or 'soda.' But I also had several that I didn't know were different - "fixin' to," "cut on the light (on and off used interchangeably)," and "bless his/her heart." And the words vegan and vegetarian did not exist.


Boston is materially colder than my home town. Fortunately, some Harvard alums had set up an endowment to act as a warm weather coat fund for low level socio-economic freshmen who moved to Boston from warm weather locations and might not be able to afford a jacket. With a grant from this fund, I purchased my first parka.

Growing up, I had never experienced more than an inch or two of snow; more than one dusting a winter was rare. Thus my first significant snow fall was a great experience. I made a snow man, multiple snow angels, and wrestled with a roommate. I soon found that while a fresh snow is fun to play in, the permanent black slush that existed on road and sidewalks the rest of the winter is less than enjoyable.


I was much more liberal than my high school classmates, but I was to the right at Harvard as I elaborate below.

Gay rights

I have a gay cousin and have been in favor of gay marriage since adolescence. Yet getting to Harvard and seeing LGBTSA banners around campus with headlines like 'have you tasted your partners' menstrual blood' and 'every tenth Jesus is gay' was a bit too much for my taste in its shock for shock's sake. Going from a place where being called a gay slur was about as bad as it got to a college where two guys walking on the sidewalk ahead of you were groping each other / PDAing was eye popping.

Living wage / populists

I generally found myself against most popular movements like the 'living wage' campaign / tent city. Part of it probably comes from my dislike of hippies, whom I view with an 'Okie from Muskogee'-esqe eyeglass. I feel that in the South, people are more in tune to dealing with the cards life deals them. A lot of 'real life' happened to my classmates and their parents - significant poverty, death, job loss, accidents, etc. Yet there was an ethos of picking yourself back up by your bootstraps. I felt things like the Living Wage Campaign were silly, because why didn't these workers work more? Or move to another area besides Cambridge? I knew plenty of people whose parents commuted sixty miles to work, and the PSLM and the circus it attracted were dirtying up Harvard Yard in an attempt to set a wage for cafeteria workers so they could live within a few miles of the campus. I felt there were more desperate causes.

Military / jingoism

The military is much more ingrained in Southern life. Many military bases are located in the south. You grow up around guns. Several of my high school classmates joined the service out of school. Military service was even offered as an alternative to jail for some who got in legal problems. At Harvard, my classmates went to schools where their school administered the SAT or PSAT to their entire class. At my high school, my entire class took an afternoon to take the ASVAB, the test that determines what your role will be in the military. At Harvard, I often found myself defending ROTC and the military from people who looked quite unfavorably on the institution and on the people who served.


I felt I was more attuned to race than most of my classmates who had grown up in homogenous or privileged backgrounds. I had grown up around both great and bad white and black people (there had not been an influx of Hispanics to my area at this point so my racial viewpoint was limited). Maybe it was part of growing up in a smaller town, but neither the racist white guy nor the pugilistic black guy hid who they were. At Harvard / in Boston, I felt that people still had views on race but hid them or had formed them from ivory towers. Many of my classmates who had grown up in all white neighborhoods / prep schools viewed black people as downtrodden saints and any negative actions by them gross exaggerations. I felt some of the black students were looking for issues to find racism where it seemed like people were responding to their actions. The case I remember was when a couple of black students complained to the Undergraduate Council that the Harvard Police Dept. stopped them to ask for their IDs when they were wearing low riding jeans and hoodies (not typical campus wear at Harvard) while looking into dorm windows; my thought was I'd hope the campus PD would stop anyone who was peering into dorm windows, particularly if they looked out of place. Meanwhile, I was surprised how freely racist jokes flowed from some students when in the company of people they felt were 'safe' but these same students put on false facades of tolerance otherwise. At least in Alabama, you knew where you stood on another person's racial barometer.

Further, finding white people who identified as 'Italian American' or 'Irish' or any other non-American identity was new to me. In high school, it was binary, white or black.

Frankly I was disappointed in diversity at Harvard, at least from a socio-economic stand point. I went there thinking there would be the 'poor rural southern' equivalents from, say, Harlem or Compton or Mexican border towns or Indian reservations. With the exception of a Vietnamese girl from a rough part of LA, the daughter of a Jewish mother and Black father who also grew up in hard scrabble LA, and the son of a Bronx sanitation worker, if these students existed during my tenure, I did not know they were there.


I grew up lazy Catholic, so I did not have the typical experience a fundamentalist Christian would have at Harvard. Can't help on that angle. But I think many of my high school classmates would have been in culture shock. At my high school, evolution was touched on to the bare minimum it had to be to meet Alabama state education standards and was always prefaced as something the teacher was being forced to teach by the state. Then at Harvard, I took a class taught by Stephen Jay Gould as a freshman. Different world.

Negative Stereotypes

There were two times I remember feeling negatively judged for being Southern. In the first, I nearly got into a fight with a classmate freshman year because I was delivering The Salient (a conservative paper) door to door as a job. Another student made a derogatory comment about the paper and my job, I defended it, and upon hearing my accent my classmate made a remark along the lines of 'of course you'd read it given you must have been in the KKK in whatever trailer park you grew up in. In the second, I was dating a girl from Tufts, and I met her best friend's parents, to whom my girlfriend was like another daughter. The parents, who had been drinking before we arrived at their Cape house, were friendly and said they had heard a lot of good things about me and then asked the line every Harvard student dreads, 'How did you get into Harvard.' I made a lighthearted remark about how every year there is a lottery and seven Alabama kids are chosen at random. The mom then says under her breath, though not quietly, "Oh, he's from Alabama. That's why..."

Mind you, many of these have probably changed in the twelve years since I was a freshman (wow that was hard to type). The most obvious for me when I go back home are racial and gay politics. It is now not uncommon to see black guys with attractive white gals at the mall when that would have been the talk of the town when I left for Harvard. Same for gay acceptance. Several of my high school classmates have come out of the closet since graduation, but doing so back in high school ten years ago would have been unthinkable.

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