I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Michael Hendryx of the University of Indiana and formerly of West Virginia University. Chuck Nelson had mentioned Dr. Hendryx as an instrumental figure in raising awareness about the health issues created by mountain top removal mining, and as the author or co-author of numerous peer-reviewed articles and essays, it’s clear why Chuck spoke so highly of him.
Much of our discussion was focused around higher education and specifically the ways in which the digital divide impacts access to education in certain parts of the country. For example, not only are the common app and forms like FAFSA now all online, but Dr. Hendryx pointed out entrance into his Masters programs and even the course work and classes are taking place in a digital setting. Thinking back to my own college experience, I had assignments on the platform WebCT and on snow days classes could be scheduled over the college’s Blackboard services. But these actions assumed I had a laptop of my own. The Digital Divide is one of the many socioeconomic issues impacting rural areas like Appalachia, but even with home computers and internet access, in order to be academically competitive at the university level students today need to own a personal computer. While certainly it’s possible to do without, and I’m sure there are personal anecdote’s out there, personal technology has undoubtedly changed the college experience and now laptops are the norm rather than the exception.
Another area we touched upon was health and the health studies he’s worked on, but even this circled back toward the realm of higher education. I asked about the local reaction to the health studies in West Virginia he published, specifically citing his work “Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions” as one I was able to find through an open sourced journal. But even the finding of it required some internet savvy such as knowing where to look and how to efficiently phrase items in a search engine. Dr. Hendryx added that many of the journals aren’t accessible to people without connections to academic organizations or specific libraries, so even with internet access they’d still be difficult to find. This creates a vicious cycle, wherein people are initially disadvantaged at gaining access into academic settings and therefore further unlikely to read or hear about studies that have life-changing information about the health and well-being of themselves and their families.
While college is certainly no silver bullet against poverty and might not be the goal or dream of many people in the Appalachian mountains, I can’t help but think that if high school seniors who live without home internet had a chance to have their emails flooded with college spam, Facebook walls filled with advertisements for universities, or the convenience of Google to search for schools, things I took for granted in suburban North Carolina, they’d look at their options a little differently.