Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I was often bored with small-town life. I was a rather shy and bookish girl of few words and many thoughts: thoughts about my family, my community, and more than anything, my future.
I spent many days studying hard and dreaming about big cities with plenty of room for my most ambitious aspirations.
By the time my senior year of high school came around, I was chomping at the bit to get my college applications to Loyola, DePaul and The University of Chicago.
The adults in my life supported my love for learning and truly believed I had great potential and, at the time, I thought that meant I was destined to leave my hometown behind in its very own coal dust.
My young, naïve self craved the glitz and glamor of somewhere else.
Due to logistical and personal challenges of being a first-generation college student, I ended up staying in Harlan County after graduation. I attended Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College for two years before transferring to Eastern Kentucky University on a scholarship.
Choosing to stay in the town I had been itching to get out of left me feeling somewhat defeated at the start, but as it turned out, would also be a pivotal decision that led me to discover that what I needed wasn’t waiting for me somewhere else: it was right there in my own backyard.
I decided that if I was going to stay in Eastern Kentucky, I was going to make the most of it.
What I ultimately discovered was a wellspring of culture, community and deep, unapologetic pride in being Appalachian. By my second year at Southeast, the mountains I had so longed to move from were instead moving me.
This transformation of perspective started with myself.
I had to work through my own insecurities to learn how to be confident in who I was and where I came from, and how to stop letting my own cognitive biases blind me to the beauty that was right in front of me.
As a college student, I developed an independence and self-efficacy that I didn’t have before. I got involved in the community and intentionally learned more about the culture, history and people of my region.
It’s no secret that life in Eastern Kentucky isn’t easy. It takes a lot of heart and hustle to make a life deep in the mountains. As I got closer to the people in my community (and began accepting myself as part of that community), I realized that Appalachia is full of some of the brightest, most loving, unique, complicated, and hard-working people in the world. Its people are its greatest asset.
I am glad I chose to stay in Eastern Kentucky. I’m grateful that I learned how to embrace my roots instead of running away to the mirage of something “bigger and better.”
Although I eventually did leave the area to finish my education, no matter where I go, I will always be Appalachian, because Appalachia isn’t bound by geographical borders; it’s something much more human than that.
Appalachia is a living, breathing, evolving part of our world — part of myself — and that is something worth celebrating.
Annie Zomaya of Richmond is an Assyrian-American writer and adventure-seeker from Harlan County and creator of the website Appalachian Adventure Girl. This op-ed originally appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader. Reach her at [email protected].
Photo by Steve Harwood, CC-Licensed.