In Focus: Education Evolution for Appalachian Women

By: ,
Posted on:

< < Back to

Pam Derringer was born in Vinton County, Ohio in a time when women had their children mostly at home. Her mother, however, decided to deviate from tradition and have her daughter in a clinic. A clinic was the only option for Pam’s mom because there wasn’t and still isn’t a hospital in Vinton County.

Old Appalachia


Mrs. Derringer was able to take her newborn baby home the very same day she was born. There was no crib for baby Pam, so her father pulled a drawer out from their chester cabinet and that would be Pam’s crib until she grew out of it. 


Pam and her family moved away to another Appalachian region in Kings Fort, Tennessee because of her father’s job. But after 12 years, it was time for her family to partake in what Pam calls “an Appalachian characteristic:” go home. 


“Home is where the family is, and so even though we lived down there for 12 years, that really to my mother was not home. She wanted back home,” recalled Derringer.


Once back in McArthur, Ohio, Pam graduated from high school, got married and had her first child all before she was 25 years old. And, she seemed to be right on the path of following Appalachian traditions.


“Women in Appalachia are a lot of times not expected to go to high school and college. You’re expected to get married, have kids, be with the family and stay pretty much right there,” said Derringer.



But, when she reached the age of 25, Pam too decided it was time to deviate from the Appalachian norm for women. She decided to go to college.


“I remember my father telling me when I finally decided to go to school, he said ‘you’ll never finish if you go’ because I already had one child, and ‘you’ll stay home and have kids.’”


Pam was confused by this comment because her father had always been supportive of education, but she quickly found out that it was more important to him that her brothers go to college. Even Pam’s cousins were confused by what they considered her abnormal behavior.


“I’d go out with my cousins that were my age and they didn’t understand why I was going to college. They didn’t understand it because most of them had a steady boyfriend and they were planning to get married right out of high school,” she remembered.


Despite her family’s expectations for her, Pam not only decided to try and pursue higher education, she went to graduate school too.


“Neither of my brothers have a college education. Well, my one brother has an associates degree, but I’m the one that has two degrees,” she boasted and then laughed.


Pam recalled that both her mother and mother-in-law never really understood why she wanted to go to school and work outside the home. They couldn’t understand her reasons for leaving. But, Pam understood their reasons for staying,“…family, home, the fear was that if you got too much education you would leave and not come back. And, that’s still in the rural deeper Appalachian pockets.”


Today, Derringer is a school psychologist at Southeastern local schools in Ross County, Ohio, helping students and encouraging them to achieve their GEDs and pursue education after high school, just like she did.


The Educational Evolution


Pam Derringer was certainly not the only woman from the Appalachian region to defy the odds and earn a college degree in her time. But, there weren’t a lot of women who did it. However, that is not necessarily the case anymore. 


After speaking about how Appalachian women were expected to stay home, Pam then followed by saying, “Now, that said, that is changing.  A lot of women do go into like social relationship professions, but again that’s slowly changing also…. There are higher expectations in the school I’ve worked in.”


And, school counselor for the Pickaway Ross Career and Technology Center, Kathy Goins, agrees with Derringer. Goins, who was born and raised in Scioto County, Ohio, thinks educational standards are shifting.


“When I graduated, I think it’s come a long way because when I graduated in 1978, wanting to go away to college and become a fashion designer was really frowned upon in my school. Teaching made sense because that was something women did. But, don’t see that stigma now, I really don’t.”


“The door is pretty much wide open for women if they want to go on to school, they can go into anything they want. I see that as getting better from my perspective and the kids that I’ve worked with,” Goins added.


Although the stigma surrounding higher education for Appalachian women has shifted, there are still other factors that can make it difficult for young Appalachian women today to pursue college or professional training. 


Lindsey Myers is a 20-year-old sophomore at Ohio University. She was born in West Virginia, and then her family moved to Pomeroy, Ohio when she was 9. And, she says she felt that being from Meigs County automatically put a stereotype on her when it came to pursuing  her dreams.


“Sometimes people look at the southeastern part as not so smart… My mom always told me to follow what I want to do. (She said) if you want to take a year off, do it. But, I thought if I did someone would say, oh she’s not going to go back. So, I went ahead to college not knowing what I wanted to do… but I always knew college was where I was going,” said Myers.



The Poverty Barrier


Other than overcoming stereotypes, Lindsey, like so many other young women in the area, has had to push through financial hardships to keep her goal of a college degree alive. Lindsey says her family is “struggling financially right now,” but with the help of public and private loans, Lindsey can continue to attend OU.


According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Athens County alone has 32.8% of its residents living below the poverty line, and the county is considered a “distressed” county along with Meigs, Vinton, and Pike counties in southeastern Ohio


The poverty in the Appalachian region hasn’t made it easy on any students, much less women, from the southeastern area to make college a number one priority after high school. But, still schools in the area like the Pickaway Ross Career and Technology Center are trying to move that priority to the top of an Appalachian student’s list.


“There’s a lot of financial aid available, and there’s a push for kids to get student loans and scholarships,” said Goins. 


Ideally, students and young women will continue to take advantage of the financial aid options available, just like Lindsey has. A college education can not only open many new doors for a young woman in the area, but it can also help continue to rid Appalachian women of the stereotypes placed on them, and help their educational standards continue to evolve.


And, while Appalachia is seeing a change in education for women, the pride that comes from the area seems to remain the same.


“I know who I am and I know what I can do… I’m proud of my heritage and where I come from,” Myers said.