by Mike Templeton
Most of us know the familiar story behind the phenomenon of urban Appalachians. People left the mountains for opportunities in the urban areas like Cincinnati, and we came to make our mark on the urban areas. There is even a cliché that relates the story of a car breaking down somewhere near Cincinnati (or Dayton, or Middletown, etc.), and a mountain family never leaving the area. Stories like these are at the very heart of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. The phenomenon of Appalachians heading to urban areas for opportunities sometimes takes a different turn as young Appalachians quite deliberately seek opportunities that have historically not been available to them. The example of Cameron Snowden, who left Breathitt County in Eastern Kentucky for Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a story not often told.
There is a scene in the movie, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, in which a local West Virginia dignitary wonders why the camera crew is following the White family around recording their antics, when they have a young man attending MIT. Why aren’t they following that boy around? The story of young Appalachians studying at elite universities does not make for the same sensational image that Hollywood and television would like to convey. It would appear that Cameron Snowden is acutely aware of this tendency which is why he and a few of his Appalachian schoolmates have begun the process of forming an Appalachian club on the campus of Harvard University.
Cameron Snowden was emphatic in telling me that the club is still in the development phase: “We are in the process of applying for official recognition by the university. It is important that I emphasize this.” Even as the club is still forming, the Harvard College Appalachian Student Association, as it will be officially known, is coalescing quickly. Cameron told me the idea for this student association came to him as he considered that there are so many other cultural associations on campus for various people: “We have cultural associations to help people from all kinds of backgrounds, and I noticed there was no such organization for Appalachian students,” he explained. He recognized the need for an Appalachian student organization and began the process of filling that need.
With a few other classmates from Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, West Virginia, and Hillsboro in southeastern Ohio, they set to work organizing an Appalachian student association. Cameron talked about how he and his classmates came to see that their experiences in coming to a place like Harvard may have been made a little easier with the help of a network of people who shared their experiences and backgrounds. As he said, “We realized that coming to Harvard, we did not have a network of people or official cultural group to identify with.” They all realized it could make things so much easier for others if in-coming students knew there was an Appalachian group in place to help with what could be a difficult transition from Appalachia to Harvard and Cambridge.
Cameron Snowden came to Harvard University via his own talents and hard work. After attending Morehead State University to finish his last two years of high school in an early college program, he applied to Harvard for early action and was accepted. Cameron did say he had the advantage of a few people who told him he had a good shot at getting into an elite school like Harvard. The mere fact of being aware of such choices for young Appalachians is something he would like the Appalachian organization to focus on. “Most of us were not even exposed to places like Harvard when we were talking about college. I would like to help others become aware of the fact that these options are available to them,” he told me.
Cameron and others in the group already have plans for long-term work. As he explained, “We quickly realized the group could be a means for advocating for the Appalachian region.” To this end, Cameron has been involved in helping to raise funds for relief for flood victims in Eastern Kentucky. He has been involved with Breathitt County’s Aspire Appalachia in their relief work. In fact, we came to know about Cameron because fellow Breathitt Countian, core member Pauletta Hansel, stopped for lunch in Jackson on her way back from volunteering and ran into an old friend who, as she said, “stopped by my table to brag on this local boy!”
The long-term work of the Harvard College Appalachian Student Association will likely continue this kind of advocacy and direct action in the Appalachian region. While he and others see the association as a cultural resource for other Appalachian students, they also see it as a force on behalf of Appalachian people in general.
The Harvard College Appalachian Student Association is still in the development phase. Student organizations at Harvard University need to go through the organizational channels, and Cameron Snowden is working on this stage of the process. There is an Instagram page for the group. The link is provided below. Cameron said that one of their main areas of focus at this stage is educational outreach. He said he wants to “talk to high school students in Appalachia and let them know that higher education is here for them—that even Harvard and Yale are feasible options.” Where the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition worked to help urban Appalachians to attain their GEDs and high school diplomas, Cameron Snowden and the Harvard College Appalachian Student Association appear to pick up the ball toward higher education and helping Appalachia make its mark in the Ivy League.
A link for the Harvard College Appalachian Student Association on Instagram can be found here: https://www.instagram.com/harvardappsa/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.