Creative-writing student Thomas Lundy, 22, sports shoulder-length brown hair framing a round face with a short moustache and goatee. Hefty leather boots make him appear a few inches taller than he stands, his broad shoulders cutting him a large figure. His many rings and shiny silver chain complete with a metal cross shines prominently against his pale skin.
Lundy hails from Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, a small town of a little more than 1,600 people. Going any where requires a fair amount of travel. Twenty minutes to Concord, 40 or 50 minutes to Charlotte.
“It’s a very tight-knit little community,” Lundy said, a slight Carolinian drawl accentuating every tenth word. “I remember when I was little it was always a long drive to go to the store.”
Out of North Carolina’s 100 counties, 80 are rural, according to Public Schools First NC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on issues surrounding public education. The organization also notes that North Carolina houses 568,000 rural students–the second highest rural population in the United States after Texas.
PSFNC figures show 64 percent of North Carolina’s counties have high rates of child poverty, a statistic directly attributable to a readiness gap which worsens as students grow older. Students living in poverty are more likely to not only drop out of college, but possibly never attend.
“I didn’t think I was going to college until I made it. I’m from a poor family, I’m from the lower class and college is big, money-wise,” Lundy said. “I’d always known in my head ‘We don’t have the money for this; we’re not going to be able to pay for it. So unless they give me something, I’m not going.’”
Small town upbringing and high school experience
From elementary all the way through high school, Lundy remained in the Mount Pleasant education system. He considers himself lucky to have had the experience he did.
“I had a pretty good experience with Mount Pleasant. Some people who are a part of the LGBT community who are out don’t, naturally. I really don’t know how I had an okay experience,” Lundy said.
As he draws upon memories, Lundy stares off into the distance and incorporates frequent hand movements. He twists his hair over his shoulder or sips from his water jug while pondering, though never lost in thought. He’s more often discerning how to phrase a response than at a loss for words.
Ramona Barton, a fellow Mount Pleasant native and longtime friend of Lundy, said although she didn’t have the greatest social experience in high school, and it’s a very close-minded community, she has love for it.
“I do think there are a lot of kind-hearted people there. While there are some people that just like to spread
hate, there are some people that I think are just uneducated,” Barton said.
Despite the rural depiction of Mount Pleasant, Barton said there’s more to it than meets the eye. She said
when outsiders see it for themselves, they just see a farm and a small downtown.
“There’s just a lot of beauty to be found in it, it’s just not maybe immediately apparent,” Barton said. “But if you travel a little bit and go into some of the woods or look at some of the pastures, there are very beautiful things there. It took me a while to realize that I loved it but I do.”
Late junior year of high school, Lundy discovered a passion for the school’s theater program, finding a bit
of a mentor in the program director, Antonio Villar, the sort of instructor who took an interest in students not only as a teacher, but also as a friend.
“By the time I got to junior and senior year of high school, Villar was essentially who I went to for most
things. I mean he saw me at my best, lots of me at my worst, he saw me struggle with completely inane and
dumb stuff,” Lundy said.
According to Villar, the theater department provided a family of sorts for Lundy. The students all took to Lundy and he, in turn, took to them.
“It really seemed like he needed a home and he definitely found one there,” Villar said.
Villar saw Lundy’s fellow theater students act as surrogate siblings. He said Lundy was certainly different
from the time he began theater to the time he left, more confident in himself and better prepared to face college.
“Looking back, I don’t remember who I was before I was in theater, but I remember how I am now and most of it, I think, started when I was in theater,” Lundy said. “I’d be a completely different person without that.”
At the conclusion of each spring semester of college, Lundy would return to his former high school and help in any way he could with the final musical of the year. Being back home from college anyway, he enjoyed lending an extra pair of hands.
Preparing for college under financial restrictions
Lundy took four advanced placement classes in high school and credited the essay-writing skills he learned as necessary preparation for college. One such course in particular emphasized college preparation above all else, an important asset for Lundy in his coming senior year.
“I was ahead of the game. A lot more ahead of the game than lots of kids typically are,” Lundy said. “We
had to sign up for CollegeBoard, we had to write the statements that you write to colleges to get them to care about you. That was instrumental.”
David Thompson, the director of student services at Owen High School in Black Mountain, said the goal of
his institution is to have all students graduate career and college ready.
“This means that students are prepared to attend post-secondary education required for their chosen field and/or begin working in a productive career,” Thompson said.
In addition to college prep courses, Thompson said the high school utilizes an online college and career resource called Naviance which allows students to explore their interests and take skill assessments to determine potential careers.
“Students can also explore colleges and universities that offer programs of interest and see a typical course
of study in that major and what the requirements are for admission,” Thompson said.
Lundy’s smaller-school college prep not only taught him how to apply to college, but also the importance of
financial assistance. The first day the FAFSA became available to him, Lundy filled it out.
“That’s why I’m here,” Lundy said. “They give me as much aid as possible. Since I’m a first generation student and I make good grades and I’m in the lower class, that means I get lots of aid. It’s not scholarships, it’s loans. I’m going to pay them back, but that’s why I’m here. It’s entirely down to that.”
When Lundy’s health insurance expired at age 19, he applied for the UNC system-provided Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance. Unfortunately, this required him to apply for additional financial aid.
“The insurance is pricey; it’s not cheap insurance. But that doesn’t surprise me, no insurance is cheap in
this country. It comes out to $2,600 for both semesters. It is what it is,” Lundy said. “I’ve gotta have it so I don’t think too much about it.”
Familial constraints pose setbacks
Despite the financial drawbacks, Lundy’s parents supported his decision to attend college.
“Money was the biggest obstacle. My parents, neither of them graduated high school. They did not even finish high school. So for me to be able to go was something I think they always hoped for but they never knew if it was going to happen,” Lundy said.
Lundy’s mother works from home doing general labor. His father is unemployed. Due to ongoing health issues, Lundy doesn’t believe his father’s labor status is likely to change.
“He has lots of issues, health issues. Lots of things we’ve always assumed mentally but have never been confirmed because we’ve never had the money to go see, which is a large reason why the family has fallen apart over the years because tensions just mount and mount and mount over all of these things that just keep going wrong,” Lundy said. “And eventually, there’s just this point of no return.”
After losing his job at a textile mill in 2006, Lundy’s father held various jobs for short periods of time but nothing seemed to last. He lost his last job around 2011, just after Lundy’s grandmother had passed away.
“We were very much impoverished. We were on EBT, unemployment, the light bill was getting not paid so the lights would get cut off every now and again for a few days until we could arrange for it to get paid somehow,” Lundy said.
Things turned around briefly when Lundy’s mother found a job through social services and was able to hold it down. Unfortunately, that left his father the job of keeping up the house, something he was unable to do. This left Lundy, the middle schooler, with many of the responsibilities of assisting his mother.
“Lots of things fell to me at that point,” Lundy said. “Bill-wise, we always talked about the bills and budgeting it out and picking dinner and all that. Me and my mom predominantly did most of it. That was how it was for a long time.”
It wasn’t until college that they’d created a fluid system and were making enough money to not have to be quite so stringent. Throughout his high school years, Lundy didn’t hold a job since he had no driver’s license.
“I didn’t get my license until halfway through junior year of college, last year, because we never had the money to put me on the insurance and you have to have the insurance to get the license,” Lundy said.
Pursuit of higher education
Coming from the small community of Mount Pleasant to the significantly larger city of Asheville was part of the allure for Lundy when he chose to attend UNCA.
“I hadn’t paid much mind to college and I was getting scared because it was time to start paying attention to college,” Lundy said.
Barton was the first person to mention the subject of college to Lundy. She told him about a school called UNCA in a larger city, located up in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
“I was like ‘oh that’s cool’ because I’d never been to the mountains. I didn’t go lots of places,” Lundy said. “I
was the poverty class, I didn’t go places very frequently.”
A few months later, on a whim, Lundy toured the campus and loved it. He experienced a larger city for the first time, eating at local restaurants and getting a feel for the area. The small size of the school in combination with the city life sealed the deal for Lundy and he made the decision to attend UNCA that spring. After living in Mount Pleasant where the main town was a 20 minute drive, Asheville provided a new and welcome change for Lundy.
“It was daunting-well I wouldn’t even say ‘daunting.’ It was fun,” Lundy said. “When I first got here, I would just get on the bus and go downtown and go do stuff.”
Lundy speaks eloquently without the common ‘ums’ and ‘likes’ thrown around by many of his peers. He
frequently chooses expressive words to articulate a point. The word “daunting” is a frequent term of his vocabulary.
From small town to college
The summer before college was tough on Lundy. There was considerable tension between himself and his mother as he wanted to spend time with friends and she wanted him close by as he would soon be moving out.
“I recognized that once you graduate high school, every interaction you have from that point on with those
people is a decision,” Lundy said. “When I first got here, I was very to myself. I was on my phone a lot talking to those people.”
Although Lundy still spends much of his time talking to his friends from home, he appreciates the network of friends he’s made in college.
“It was slow,” Lundy said. “First year, I didn’t make any of those close friendships. I had some people I talked to, some of them soured, some of them just drifted off. Sophomore year I made a lot more of those friends.”
Freshman year posed additional challenges to Lundy as his parents decided to separate, just days before
he returned to college. His parents’ separation placed excessive stress on Lundy and during the first week of class, his appendix failed and he was hospitalized.
“It was just not good for anyone involved,” Lundy said. “It was always a fight and a free-for-all to accomplish simple things that should not have to be fights and free-for-alls. By the end of that summer we arranged for my dad to move out.”
Plans for the future
As a creative writing major, Lundy said he’ll take whatever job that pays decently. As a member of the English department, he said he’s definitely not in the program for the money.
“The professors do nothing but joke about the fact that we’re all going to be starving artists and going broke, and they’re not exactly wrong,” Lundy laughed.
With no interest in teaching the skills he’s learned, Lundy would instead prefer to be an editor, utilizing his degree to assist others in their writing. This selfless quality is something Barton said she greatly admires in her friend.
“He’s a friendly person, but having known him for so long, he’s always there for you,” Barton said. “He will
not hesitate at the drop of a ball if you’re going through something, to be there for you.”
Lundy also maintains a relationship with Villar even after graduating high school, staying in touch with both him and his wife.
“He’s definitely about as rural as you’re going to find,” Villar said. “It was clear from the beginning that he
had a hell of a lot more to offer than being some small town, do-nothing. We worked hard to get him into college and I’m glad that he’s thriving. His talents and his intelligence would’ve been wasted here.”