The Rest of the Story

Writer: 
March 31, 2002

Byrd, aided by teaching assistantship in biology: Undifferentiated human embryonic stem cells

Byrd, aided by teaching assistantship in biology.

When Julie Byrd, a Duke senior from Avery County, North Carolina, agreed to talk with a reporter from The Wall Street Journal about her experiences as a student at Duke, she originally thought the article would be about the challenges a university environment poses for certain students.

"He started it saying he wanted to talk about students from rural areas," Byrd says, "and my big thing is that in the rural areas, where I'm from, they don't encourage you to excel. People don't talk about leaving Avery County--they don't even think about the possibility. By the time you're in middle school, you realize that being smart is nerdy and you can't possibly fit in, so you have to learn not to be smart, and you can't get yourself out of that."

Byrd got herself out by winning a place at the Durham-based North Carolina School of Science and Math, whose basic admissions policy is to admit two students from every county in the state. There, she says, she "no longer felt like some little outcast."

But the problem Byrd thought she was talking about with The Wall Street Journal reporter persisted even at Science and Math, she says. "The frustrating thing to me was, you don't see a lot of rural students. They try, but the problem is the students aren't applying in the first place, because when they're growing up, they're not learning that you should do the best you can.

"Your counselors are not saying, 'You could really go far, you could apply to Ivy League schools'--they're not even thinking about that. A lot of times, when people talk about disadvantaged students, they talk about the inner cities. They have their problems, but there's also the rural schools. They don't have any money either. Plus they don't have anything to attract the teachers. It's really frustrating. That's the problem I saw, and that's what I thought he was going to be writing about."

Instead, when it hit newsstands and in-boxes on June 8, though mentioning the difficulty that Duke has had in attracting rural students to a scholarship endowed by John Mack '68 for that purpose, the article's main thrust was to use Byrd's story as an illustration of a "class divide" at "elite universities." She was depicted as a have-not in a sea of haves, a poverty-stricken girl just barely making do with guts and ingenuity. Duke alumni around the country wrote in to offer financial assistance to Byrd, who, surprised by the story and not feeling nearly as needy as she'd been portrayed, refused any funds for herself, suggesting instead that resources be directed toward the general endowment.

It was a gesture typical of the vivacious, intelligent young woman, a biology major who looks forward to Ultimate Frisbee tournaments on weekends and her job as a teaching assistant during the week, and who insists that her situation could be much worse.

"One thing I always try to stress is I'm not really having a hard time. I'm getting along just fine," she says. "Maybe I don't get to do quite everything that everybody else does, but it's no big deal. It's not like I'm a sob story."

Where the article stressed her making do with leftover computer parts and a diet of couscous, Byrd says these things seem like a normal part of college, and that she's been able to participate in many facets of Duke life. Her Ultimate Frisbee club travels around the region competing against other top teams. ("We stay in people's houses when we can," she says, "and pack seven or eight people to a hotel room.") She took a study-abroad trip to Australia last year. While she says she didn't have the opportunity some other Duke students had to travel around a lot while she was there, she had a good experience of her own by "getting to know the Australians I was with--I went places with them, I stayed at their houses, and I met all these really cool people."

Byrd admits to the same small frustrations that have bothered financial-aid recipients since the first need-based form was printed: a "red-tape" difficulty in navigating the system sometimes, not understanding why outside scholarships are deducted from aid awards (she knows it's a federal law, as Duke's financial-aid office explains, but doesn't understand why the law exists), not having a car because its value affects the amount of a financial aid award.

She says she has enjoyed her various work-study jobs in Perkins Library and the admissions office, but the work requirement has cut more into her time than she would have liked. "If I weren't working, I would have a whole heck of a lot more time than I do. But that's life," she adds, managing a slight shrug and a smile all at once, acknowledging that the jobs have given her good exposure to people and good experiences for the future.

One of the troublesome aspects of The Wall Street Journal story, Byrd says, was its implication that her parents couldn't take care of her needs. "My parents have always supported me, and they had to make a little bit of sacrifice for me to come here," she says. "And I felt bad for it, but they told me, 'You're growing up--this is part of your job right now, part of your life. It's part of our responsibility to take care of you.'

"And they do pay my contribution. I have my grants, and I have my loans and I will be paying those off, but they have actually paid the rest of it. I am very grateful that they have, because I do have friends here who pretty much are paying their entire way through college, and they amaze me. I just don't see how they do it."