West Virginia native and WVU law student Brian Gardner defines himself as a biracial, LGBT religious minority. He’s also a rural expat from a hometown so small, Antioch, West Virginia, that the U.S. Census Bureau does not keep data on it. Gardner left home to become what many in rural communities now view as an adversary: a progressive joining protests against President Trump’s immigration ban in the cultural bubble of a college town.
On Monday night, Gardner joined hundreds of community members at West Virginia University – of various colors, religions, beliefs, genders and ethnicities – to support the international community in the wake of President Trump’s immigration ban. Armed with signs and candles, protesters pushed a message of peace, unity and resistance to the president’s executive order (The Chronicle of Higher Education captured WVU’s reaction to Trump’s travel ban.).
Like most college towns, Morgantown is contained in a bubble of relative resilience that contrasts with other areas in a region pounded by economic distress. The disparity between this college town in West Virginia and residents in the Appalachian coalfields also highlight a growing divide that surfaced throughout the 2016 presidential election between those with and without a college education.
The New York Times branded education as the defining electoral split replacing the culture wars.
According to the Pew Research Center, college graduates supported Hillary Clinton by a 9-point margin (52 percent to 43 percent) over Donald Trump. Pew called it “by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980.”
The divide between college bubbles within rural states is not just limited to Appalachia. Trump supporters across America, including rural Minnesota, say they’re just fine with the immigration ban.
For some small town folks like Gardner, however, going to college can be a cultural wake-up call. In recent years, American colleges have seen an influx of international students like never before, and this exposure may be why college students are more likely to empathize with immigrants and refugees.
Gardner described his hometown as “in the boonies and 99.99999 percent white.”
And then he came to WVU, where he was randomly paired up with a Libyan roommate.
“I was hesitant at first, but mainly because I was nervous about his possible prejudices,” Gardner said. “But I never felt scared of him or his friends. They were made aware of my sexuality, and that was never an issue.”
Libya is one of the seven countries, along with Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, named in the travel ban. At WVU, it could directly affect 127 students. The campus has 69 students from Iran, 27 from Libya, 13 from Iraq, 13 from Syria, four from Yemen and one from Sudan.
Although Gardner is a West Virginia native and not from any of those seven countries, he can’t help but wonder if he’s “next.” That is, next to face potential discrimination as a result of Trump administration policies.
“This ban could have easily targeted another group, possibly one I belong to,” he said. “We all need to unite in our resistance.”
At Monday’s rally, Gardner, donning a coonskin cap, shared his story with the audience and joked that the roommate did not turn out to be a terrorist and kill him.
Gardner believes it should be in the nature of West Virginians and Appalachians to lend a hand to the downtrodden, particularly if they’re one of their own.
“When someone lives in my state, regardless of why they are here, they become a Mountaineer and are always a Mountaineer,” he said. “We, as West Virginians and Appalachians in general, need to welcome those who are disenfranchised by our government because we know all too well the struggle of the disenfranchised. We need to spread our love and help those who are eager to live among us.”