“I don’t think [Malaysians] had any concept of Appalachia. When I would say ‘Kentucky,’ they would say, ‘Oh, KFC!’”
Julie Jent, Sophomore, Berea College; Jackson County, Kentucky:
“My parents got divorced when I was young, and I guess just neither one of them were prepared to take up the duty of raising a kid. My great-uncle adopted my sister, and me and we’ve lived with them ever since we were younger. I have seven brothers and sisters, but the rest [them] live with my mom or my dad.
I always appreciated the times that we got to spend together, like playing games outside. I valued always having someone to play with while I was growing up, just being able to be outside and see other kids like myself.
[My great uncle is] a maintenance man for the schools, and so I thought it was really cool growing up, always seeing him around the school. I felt like a hero guy. He’d come in and fix the air conditioner, and I’d always see him on the playground doing something. That was nice seeing him involved in a lot of my childhood, even though it was behind the scenes.
Middle School is a rough time for everybody. I don’t think anybody looks back and is like, ‘Oh, I wish I could go back to middle school.’ But high school was great. I got to know a lot more people, and I got interested in a lot more things. I always knew I wanted to get out and do different things. That’s why I got involved in Youth Working Group, and I did Upward Bound for four summers of high school. I got involved in anything I could to broaden my horizons.
[At] seventeen, I applied at for a U.S. Abroad Scholarship to be a Youth Ambassador for the State Department. Being from a small town in Kentucky, I never really thought I would get it. The day kept getting closer, and I went to interviews and finished the application. I remember when I found out; I was pulling up my internet, just scrolling and waiting for it to load, and I just remember seeing, ‘Congratulations. You’ve been accepted. You’re going to Malaysia.’
I ran into the living room, and started like screaming. [My family] didn’t believe me at first. They thought it was like all made-up, until I like got on the plane to leave.
[I went] from a town of seven hundred, to a city of seven million, [so Malaysia] completely changed my perspective on everything. How people live their daily lives, what they do, and the education system was a lot to adjust to. I lived with a local Indian host family, so it was different adjusting to the mom, dad, and brothers and sisters all in the house, and acclimating myself to [determine] where I fit in.
It’s the greatest experience I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t think they had any concept of Appalachia, but they kind of knew a lot about California or New York. When I would say ‘Kentucky,’ they would say, ‘Oh, KFC!’ It was great telling them about where I was from. Yeah, we have a lot more scenery, and yes, I have a really big backyard, because to them, where the population is so high, property and things are really expensive. To have a yard, you have to be really wealthy, and so I would show them pictures of my house and things, and they were like, ‘Wow! That’s really awesome.’
(Did growing up in Appalachia prepare you for life?) I don’t think I would have the mindset that I do today, if I was from somewhere else. It’s nice to be able to look back on my childhood, and be able to realize how far I’ve come, how much I’ve learned and [how I] really became my own individual person, rather than just having everything that I know just handed to me.
[Appalachian traditions] are so well kept and passed down from generation to generation, that it just seems like you’re in your own little space, which is your family. What makes Appalachia is the fact that we treasure traditions and like passing down things to our kids and grandkids.
I don’t know if I consider myself a hillbilly, just because I always grew up with it as a negative connotation. I really like the fact, though, that some people are really taking it and owning it. I think that’s bringing it back in really a positive way.
[My family taught me] hard work and gratitude. My uncle didn’t have to do the things that he did for us. I value his kindness, and everything that he’s done for us. He was just grateful for what we did have, and he really instilled in us to appreciate what you have.
There are a lot of things wrong with the media. First of all, they don’t cover the news that needs to be covered. They cover really superficial things that nobody really cares about. When they go for interviews, I feel like they really hunt them down to find the people that are the most stereotypical version of Eastern Kentucky, or just Kentucky in general, and they get them to give these interviews. I think that definitely plays a part in how we’re perceived.
We might not have grown up privileged and had everything handed to us, not that everyone has, but we have the same goals and aspirations as [everyone else]. It’s really important to try to understand before you take somebody for face value.
I go to Berea College and I’m majoring in Political Science. I hope to become a Foreign Service officer, so I’m doing steps to make that happen. There’s always going to be those people that are going to come back and enrich the community, but you don’t necessarily have to enrich the community by staying here. There are important ways to represent it abroad, with diplomacy; representing where you’re from, and being proud of it so people get a better idea. Just like how we’re under-represented in media, being out there in the public eye, and showing them, ‘Yes, I’m from here, and I may not be living there now, but I’m doing other really great things, and I’m proud of where I’m from.’
One of my big hobbies is obviously traveling. I love to travel and go to new places, to just explore everywhere. I don’t get to do that quite as often as I would like because college takes up a lot of time, but I think in college there’s a lot of opportunities for hobbies. There are so many things to get involved with, like the things on my campus. I’ve done sports, and I really enjoy reading when I get a chance, and going hiking. There are really beautiful places to hike out in Berea, and I enjoy camping, and just doing things most college students like to do.
(About the It’s Good 2B Young In The Mountains Conference) This conference definitely sets a precedence for many conferences to come. I hope it opens a lot more people’s eyes, because they think that there’s not a lot to do in their community, and don’t really know ways to get involved. This [conference] is a great networking opportunity. I know the word networking seems like its overused, but [this] is a really good opportunity to meet people. We’re all from like the same region, and it’s great to see where everybody’s at with their lives, and see what everybody is doing to better Appalachia.
I would like my legacy to be focused on representation, and not only representing myself and being the best version of myself that I can be, but representing the United States and Kentucky, as well. It’s important to understand other people, where they’re coming from and their backgrounds. That’s one of things that I really hope people remember me for, just being an understanding person that really tries to look at things from an unbiased point view and tries to understand individuals on more than a face level value.”