In Focus: The American Dream -Similar Among Generations in Appalachia

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The American Dream among generations in Appalachia revolves around helping others, whether it be through education or service. As children, some of their dreams were glamorous. Now, although their dreams may be different, the people in their lives influence their happiness and their dreams. 

Wednesday nights at the Laurels of Athens means one thing for Lyda Gunter – bingo.            

Growing up in Racine, Ohio, her Wednesdays looked a little different. A night of painting and square dancing was her idea of fun time. Her American dream was to be an actress who would star in all of the romance movies. Now, at 82-years-old, Guntet said her childhood dreams were just glamorous and don’t align with her current goals in life.            

 “It’s not that important now,” Guntet said. “I’d like to help somebody. I’d like to be in a religious group. That’s what I like to do.” 

Guntet says her American dream has already been achieved. But she has some regrets. She didn’t go to college.“I was just having fun,” Guntet said. “I didn’t have enough sense to realize that I should have done something with myself. When you’re on a farm, you don’t know anything about city life, just farm life."

Although her dreams of going to college are in the past, Guntet spends her days watching TV and going to church, trying to soak in as much information as she can.

American Dream in Southeast Ohio

Throughout the country, many references of the American dream made through politics, culture and music bring to mind images of a house, a white picket fence, a car and 2 children. But this ideal image, is exactly that in many Appalachian’s minds – ideal. In Appalachia, their dreams share a common thread of helping others, which lead them to their ultimate goal of happiness. It's the power to change their own future and make a difference in others that propels them forward. 

The American dream is defined as an “American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The term was first used in 1931.

In Southeast Ohio, getting an education is central among the different generations. For some Appalachians, their American dreams are fueled by learning and giving back to the community through teaching or service.

Value in Education 

Patty Stokes, a women’s and gender studies professor at Ohio University, said getting an education was always a part of her American Dream. Stokes grew up in North Dakota for 16 years and then went to college at Stanford University to get her Bachelors and her Masters. From there, she went to Cornell University, where she received her PhD in History and a minor in Women’s and Genders Studies.

“You get more joy out of life if you have a good education,” Stokes said.

But, similar to Guntet, her life now as professor was not a part of her original childhood professional dreams.  She had dreams of becoming a stewardess or the next woman president. Now, as a professor, Stokes says she is doing the job she was meant to do. This access to higher education, Stokes said, is not the same as it was when she was younger due to financial aid access.

In Ohio, about 88 percent of people ages 25 and older have graduated from high school, which is almost two and a half percent more than it is nationally, according to 2010 Census Bureau data.  Additionally, about 28 percent of people nationally ages 25 and older have received their bachelors or higher compared to 24 percent in Ohio, according to the Census Bureau.

Stokes said this dream of getting an education, is not just an American dream, but a universal dream. Coming from a long line of teachers, Stokes has instilled the value of receiving a good education in her children, 13- year-old Sam and 9-year-old Leo Debatin. Their dreams, however said Stokes, are heavily influenced by technology.

“Leo’s American dream is to play on the computer all day long,” she said.

Although her generation isn’t as technology driven as her son's is, Stokes believes the American dream of learning is still the same.

Family Bonds 


Strong family ties similar to that of Stokes and her children, are important to many in Appalachia.

From 2007 to 2011, the average persons per household in Ohio were 2.46 compared to 2.60 nationally, according to the Census Bureau. Marriage however, has dropped significantly since 1960 by 21 percent according to analysis done by the Pew Research Center.  

Although marriage is becoming less desired by the younger generations, family ties are important for many living in Appalachia. 20-year-old Jesse McKown said growing up with a single mother greatly influenced the way he looks at life.

“She showed me that determination gets you anywhere,” McKown said. “The life that she led compared to the life she lives now is completely different. I respect her more than anyone for that.”

Since he didn’t have a father figure growing up, his mother was his source for advice. As the oldest of four children, McKown is the first of his family to go college. He is currently a part of the ROTC program at OU studying military psychology.

“I think the unachievable for me really was college,” he said. “For the longest time, I didn’t know if I was going to go. Financially, if it weren’t for the army, I would not be here right now.”

His path is different from other ROTC cadets at OU. He was a part of the National Guard first and then decided to go to school.  When he was younger, he imagined himself as a police officer, a firefighter, or a veterinarian. All three are jobs that involving helping others. While they were his goals, his mother ultimately, was the fuel to those dreams.

“She showed that if you put your heart into something and you’re wiling to put forth 100 percent effort, you can do anything,” he said.

Now, his American dream is to set a new standard for his family to show them that they can continue their education. While his dream is to become educated and serve his country, he also wants to have a family, something which is associated with the quintessential American dream.

“My American dream was shaped by the way I was brought up – my mom and my family and the people who mean the most to me,” he said. “I think everyone’s American dream is in relation to that."

McKown hopes to improve the lives of others, while protecting his country. Protecting his country is his American dream.

A Similar Dream Of Happiness 

Among generations in Appalachia, the American dream is not just a house, a family and a car. For some, like Guntet, Stokes and McKown, it’s a dream of giving back that serves as the basis for bigger dreams for themselves and others. 


Similar to Guntet’s favorite game of bingo, the American dream among generations can take different paths, whether one becomes a professor, serves in the Army, or enjoys life by playing bingo. While they may be different, they all have the main goal of helping them look toward the future. In their minds, these dreams are important as they give them something to look forward to. 

"If you don’t have something to look forward to it’s nothing,” Guntet said. “It’s just wasted time.”