What does it mean to be educated? That was one of the questions I asked author Tara Westover when I had the good fortune of interviewing her recently as part of the Moss Arts Center’s HomeStage series. Like Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated, her answer did not disappoint.

Westover, raised by radical survivalists who denied her any sort of formal schooling, taught herself algebra, passed the ACT, and found herself as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, where she first learned about the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. Her education took her to the world’s top universities—a fellowship at Harvard and, ultimately, a PhD from Cambridge. But are titles and pedigree what makes one educated?

I connected with various parts of Westover’s memoir because I, too, grew up in a small rural community and went on to become a first-generation college student — but with one major difference. Whereas Westover achieved academically in spite of her parents’ lack of support, I achieved wholly because of mine. That’s why it was important for me to discuss issues of place and rurality during our conversation. Too often, popular narratives serve as generality. For rural people and places, this is an all too common trope.

J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a prime example. Like Westover’s inspiring resiliency, so, too, was Vance’s. The difference, however, was that Vance generalized his experience to all of “us” hillbillies throughout his memoir, providing commentary on a “culture in crisis.” (I can assure you my Appalachian experience was nothing like his.)

But, still, shouldn’t everyone get to tell their story? I asked Westover how we can tell our “rural” stories if there’s trauma or when we no longer live in our hometowns without inadvertently sending the message to rural youth that “becoming educated” equals “leaving.” She spoke of her intentionally telling only her personal story and not providing commentary on something broader about Idaho, or Mormonism, or rural communities. She does, however, credit her rural beginnings as giving her a community lens for seeing the world (and also for being really good at changing a tire!).

Westover’s memoir is inspiring because it not only embodies the indomitable will of the human spirit to be seen and treated with respect and humanity, but it also shows how sometimes our search for “knowledge” can take us away from our families and communities. This is often the case for young rural students making the choice to go away to attend college, many of whom are aware they likely will not return due to limited job prospects back home. There’s often a lot on the line for them.

Amy Price Azano, left, interviews Tara Westover as part of a Moss Arts Center virtual event.
Amy Price Azano, left, interviews Tara Westover as part of a Moss Arts Center virtual event.

Prior to my conversation with Westover, she graciously spent time with a group of first-generation college students at Virginia Tech. Westover knows firsthand what it feels like to struggle with a sense of belonging when you find yourself for the first time on a college campus.

During that intimate conversation, a student thanked Westover, saying that she could “see herself” in the memoir. Perhaps that’s what’s so inspiring about the memoir — it allows us to bear witness to someone’s success despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And, yet, for Westover, that success came at the price of estrangement from her family.

Despite all my book learning, there’s no education that competes with the foundational one I received growing up in a rural community. Students, no matter who they are or where they come from, do not come to a learning environment as blank slates. Too often, common curricula and assessments fail to capitalize on the funds of knowledge students bring with them to the classroom.

In my scholarship, I look at ways teachers might use place-based learning as a tool for supporting critical thinking. Yet, I recognize that place can be a complicated relationship for many. I have written before that we can love complicated places just as we love complicated people, and I asked Westover if that was true for her. Despite the trauma she experienced there, she acknowledged that she still loves the mountain she grew up on — and she also still loves her family.

During our conversation, I was struck time and again with the way Westover’s responses always led with empathy. In one instance, she admitted that she once had many beliefs she does not have now, including a homophobic stance on marriage equality that was central to her religious upbringing.

She shared that she was speaking with an acquaintance at Cambridge who truly couldn’t understand her opposition to gay rights but, rather than judging and condemning her, he listened. It was through their exchange that she was able to reevaluate, and actually change, her beliefs.

When I asked, What does it mean to be educated?, she didn’t respond with accolades or degrees. Instead, she reflected on that acquaintance. She said he’s an example of someone who is truly educated — someone who can listen with empathy and seek understanding even when they disagree. And from her perspective, no one’s mind has ever been changed as a result of being judged.

Currently, there’s a lot of rhetoric about kids “being behind” during this pandemic. Westover offers an alternative view. In her memoir, she writes about a defining moment when she first arrived at Cambridge, standing firmly on the slanted roof of a chapel with classmates during a windstorm.

Her professor, noticing that she had no trouble standing while all the other students appeared nervous and fearful of falling, told her: “This is the first time I’ve seen you at home in yourself.” Westover, giving credit to her “education” as a roofer on the mountain where she grew up, said the wind is just wind, and she knew, from experience, that panicking was of no use.

Those types of lessons, sometimes learned through our most challenging days, may be the ones that ultimately teach us, no matter where we come from or what we’ve been through, to stand in the wind.

Amy Price Azano, PhD, is an associate professor of adolescent literacy and rural education in the Virginia Tech School of Education.