By Jillian Cung, September 8 2022—
Growing up in the small town of Forestburg, Alberta — population 807 — left me with a perspective that most university students struggle to relate to. I am always in shock if I can find another peer who grew up in a place as rural as I did. Rural education consisted of knowing your classmates from the womb and having three different math classes shoved into the same classroom. Going from a place where locking your doors was uncommon in the 2000s made it a difficult transition to the urban city of Calgary. After talking to some local Calgarians, some even think Calgary is not a big enough city for them — which is absolutely mind-boggling to me.
My first grievance with the University of Calgary as someone who has lived in a rural area is how the vast majority of online businesses do not ship to very rural communities. There are many rural communities that rely solely on post offices — forcing us to depend on Canada Post as it is the only shipping carrier with access to post office boxes. Unfortunately, many online businesses opt to use more cost-effective shipping carriers than Canada Post — which leaves rural communities with limited options. I remember during the height of COVID-19 being in my first year of online university and I wanted to ship my textbooks from the UCalgary Bookstore to my post office box, however, that was not possible. The limited options left me shipping the textbooks to my friend’s house in the closest city near me which was 83 kilometers away.
It is no shocker that rural communities do not have the same resources as urban areas, however, let’s bring attention to the gap in educational opportunities as well that create a barrier of access to higher education. For instance, rural communities typically have only one K-12 school. I went to the same school from kindergarten to grade 12 — Forestburg School — which has a student body of about 200.
I remember thinking that Advanced Placement (AP) courses were only part of American education because when I was growing up I never met anyone who took them until I went to university. Also, I had never heard of the International Baccalaureate Programme until I met someone who completed it. I remember being in my first year of university and hearing my peers chat about what kind of extracurriculars they did in high school, and I was in disbelief at all their various answers. In comparison, my school offered three extracurriculars — home economics, instrumental music, and industrial arts. When I was in high school, diminishing class sizes were rampant — which meant that many rural schools had reduced funding. The reduced funding came with reduced resources — I did a handful of online high school classes because it was not feasible for such a small school to offer more. The issue with supplementing in-person courses with online courses was that I retained less information from them than my in-person courses.
In 2021, Forestburg School started offering the Kirschman Bursary Program as a financial incentive to keep and attract students. The bursary gives students $1000 towards their post-secondary education for each year of high school that they complete at Forestburg School. Small rural communities are struggling to not become ghost towns as they try to compete with urban centres. This is compared to Calgary — where everything feels so much more instantaneous and accessible. My favourite part, believe it or not, is using public transit as now I no longer have to borrow someone’s car to arrive at my destination. If you plan on having a night out, no one has to be the designated driver when there’s public transit, Uber and taxis to help you get home.
Transitioning towards higher education at a university level is often viewed as unnecessary by my peers — because many of them wanted to work in our rural economy. In our economy, there are not too many jobs that require a degree as most jobs could be fulfilled through diploma programs, apprenticeships or just simply a high school diploma. I knew many of my classmates planned to work on their family farms and ranches. Although rural communities can see the value in higher education, there is almost a cultural mindset that school is done once you graduate high school. Rural education is adapted well for students who only want to graduate with their diploma, however, are there enough resources for students who want to continue their academic journey?
I remember in high school, many teachers taught various subjects regardless if they had previous training in it. My grade 10 social studies teacher was also the grade 11 and 12’s chemistry teacher. His first time teaching social studies was when he taught my grade 10 class. Forcing teachers to educate students outside their specialized subject not only adds additional stress to the teacher as it also could lead to the education being compromised.
In my first year of university, I was suffering from imposter syndrome because I felt out of place compared to many of my peers who came from extremely academic backgrounds — which led them to have incredible educational opportunities. I was astonished to find out some students did university preparation courses or came from schools that highly prioritized academics to the point where a 90 per cent grade felt average. I remember meeting a few students who already had high school research positions — which would be almost unheard of in rural communities. This created a feeling that everyone was miles ahead of me and I could only hope to catch up.
There are undeniable differences between rural and urban communities — that often do not cross people’s minds. The gap between rural and urban educational opportunities only continues to widen, as rural communities fight their pending ghost town status. I hope this article provided some insight into some of the differences between rural and urban education in the context of who we are, our learning needs and the learning curve we must endure upon entry. To other first years coming from rural areas, you are seen.
This article is a part of our Voices section.