Between two worlds: rural students on transitioning to city living

On missing home-cooked food, silence, and seeing the stars

The University of Toronto reported a total enrollment of 91,286 students for the 2018–2019 academic year, with students coming from 157 countries and regions. However, there are currently no statistics for the number of students who come from rural areas.

Even as domestic students, rural students still undergo an acute sense of culture shock and change when moving to urban areas to attend school. In order to attend university, rural students have to leave their family and friends, and face financial challenges due to the relocation.

The Varsity interviewed two U of T students who shared their stories about transitioning from rural to city life.

Growing up in rural hometowns

Thomas Wildeboer, a first-year student studying physical and mathematical sciences, was raised in a “very agricultural and quiet” town in southern Ontario called Grand Valley. It has a population of roughly 3,000 people, according to a 2016 census by Statistics Canada. There are only a few stores, ranging from a hardware store, to an LCBO and a few restaurants.

“Most residents were farmers or worked in local trades… To do anything important you had to drive 20 minutes to the next larger town, Orangeville,” Wildeboer wrote to The Varsity.

Growing up, the activities were largely outdoors-based. “As a kid we spent summers fishing and biking around mostly,” he wrote. “In the winter there would be lots of snow and the area is hilly so sledding was always fun.”

For Dean Hiler, a third-year student studying earth systems, geographic information systems, and history and philosophy of science, it’s a similar story.

“I’m from Watervliet, Michigan, which is a town of about 1,600 people (and falling),” Hiler wrote to The Varsity. “There’s a movie theatre, maybe 3 good restaurants, and Lake Michigan.”

“I enjoyed my time there. I enjoyed fishing, building forts in the woods, tending to chickens and horses, riding a dirt bike, and like everyone else, video games!” wrote Hiler.

He added that “Relative to Toronto, there weren’t a lot of things to do or places to go, but you don’t notice that.”

Transitioning to life in Toronto

Wildeboer discovered that one of the biggest changes in acclimating to Toronto is the feeling of not knowing anybody.

“Walking down the street you won’t usually recognize anyone, unlike in a small town,” he wrote.

However, he found that adapting to the pace of city life was not as big of a pendulum swing as expected. “Many people who live in rural areas have a lot of bad ideas about city living but the adjustment really isn’t difficult,” wrote Wildeboer. “I started to feel at home pretty quickly.”

He found that living in Toronto provides a new kind of convenience that Grand Valley didn’t have. “You’re walking distance away from a lot of stuff and the TTC can get you places. If all else fails, Uber is an option. In rural areas, driving for hours to run errands is common,” he wrote.

Wildeboer has found that one of the best things about living in the city is fast internet, which he describes as “a rare commodity in rural Ontario.”

For Hiler, the biggest change has been the commute. In Toronto, he commutes an hour from Scarborough each day, with an extra cushion of 30 minutes for potential delays. But back in Watervliet, he had his schedule whittled down to the minute.

“It took about 15 minutes to get to school once the school bus picked me up. When I turned 16 and started driving to school, it took exactly 7 minutes and never varied because traffic doesn’t exist,” wrote Hiler.

He mentioned that although Toronto is the only big city that he’s spent much time living in, he has noticed some differences between the cultures of rural and metropolitan areas. The diversity in Toronto is one of Hiler’s favorite features of living here. He described Watervliet as “95% white.”

“And I mean the same shade of white!” he wrote. “Everyone is protestant or Catholic. Going out to eat means burgers, pizza, or ‘the Mexican place.’ All of the radio stations are country music with the occasional rock or pop.”

Hiler emphasized that diversity was integral to adding and altering many things in his life, from his taste in food and music to his view of the world and personal values.

“Diversity adds this intangible quality to life that is often indirect and minor, but because it affects everything, it’s actually a huge part of your life and you don’t realize you were missing it or value it until you have it,” he wrote.

He explained that “the perspective I get from being enveloped in diversity has allowed me to redefine myself using a much larger dictionary.”


The opportunities of being in the city

In over 30 years, there has been tremendous growth in the number of people attending universities. In 1980, there were 550,000 students enrolled at the undergraduate level at Canadian universities. In 2010, there were 994,000 students. For the 2016–2017 academic year, Statistics Canada estimated that 2.05 million students were enrolled in postsecondary education — up 1.2 per cent from the previous academic year.

Changes in the labour market and the demand for a highly skilled and educated labour force have driven this growing trend in participation in postsecondary studies. This demand has increased the value attached to university degrees, drawing more people from all backgrounds to postsecondary education.

The promise of opportunity that being at U of T brings rings true for both Wildeboer and Hiler.

“I don’t have many solid plans after I’m finished my studies, but I can’t envision moving back. I want to work in tech or finance,” wrote Wildeboer. “Those industries obviously don’t exist outside of cities and I can’t stand a long commute.”

The same goes for Hiler, who also can’t envision himself moving back to a small town in the near future.

“I feel like that would be closing myself off to a lot of my academic, professional, and personal potential,” Hiler wrote. “My summer work as a field assistant had me doing more camping in three months than I ever did in Michigan. My courses have taken me into the Ontario wilderness, to Turkey, and this year, South Africa and Australia.”

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that he’ll be tossing away his small town values and way of life for Toronto.

“After graduation, I’ll continue to seek involvement and balance, drawing from the best of both ‘worlds,’” he wrote.

In between two worlds

Wildeboer typically commutes home on the weekends and finds himself between two worlds, quite literally.

“I have two sets of friends and two ‘modes’ of living essentially,” he wrote.

The separation between living in Toronto and living in Grand Valley leads Wildeboer to miss some aspects of being home. Something that he looks forward to when going back is home-cooked food.

“The stars and the quiet [are] really nice sometimes, especially when [I’m] under a lot of stress,” Wildeboer added.

Hiler also identifies his experience as being between two worlds.

“When I think of ways in which people can differ — politics, religion, values — the greatest polarizations are found within the rural/city divide. I think the differences between rural and city people are much greater than the differences between the cultures of [the US and Canada],” Hiler wrote.

Something he especially misses about being back home is the nighttime. He defines the night as being “a period of time where there is a major absence of stimuli,” and he claims that he’s never experienced the night in Toronto.

“It never gets dark — especially in the winter when it’s as bright as day at 3 a.m,” wrote Hiler.

Back home in Watervliet, the night sky is a place of silence and respite.

“There is no light, save for a sky full of stars and a moon,” wrote Hiler. “It is completely silent except for crickets chirping and leaves brushing against each other in the breeze (different kinds of trees have different sounding leaves). It’s a great time to take a walk in the woods… and it’s so easy to fall asleep at night.”

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