Education and Opportunity for Rural Students and Communities

Stories of Success

A pathway too few rural students have chosen was the pathway chosen by Allyson Pierce.  Allyson Pierce, a University California Berkeley graduate is a product of the Wellpinit School District located in eastern Washington on the Spokane Indian Reservation.  Pierce graduated from Wellpinit High School in 2014 with a graduating class of 14 students. 

Not often enough do you hear of rural students attending prestigious universities. It is undeniable that going from a high school consisting of less than a hundred students to a university where a lecture class can surpass 800 students can be among one of the many struggles for a small-town student. According to Pierce, size was one of her main difficulties when transitioning into such a different educational culture.

 “One day I was sitting in the middle of a lecture hall with a steady stream of people filling in,” said Pierce. “It didn’t fully hit me until that moment”. 

Pierce began her journey towards her education at UC Berkeley during her 7th grade year at Wellpinit Junior High. Pierce was randomly assigned UC Berkeley for an AVID classroom assignment dedicated to researching and reporting on a given college.  

“I always knew I would go to college,” said Pierce. “Coming from a small town that’s really your only option to leave, college was my way out - my ticket to somewhere else”. 

Through her research, she learned about some of the campus life aspects that made UC Berkeley such an intriguing academic establishment to pursue.  “I was blown away by all the activism that I was learning about on campus,” said Pierce. “I have always been very big on social justice”.  By the end of Pierce’s research, she was convinced that UC Berkeley would be her first choice when the time came to apply for colleges. 

Pierce’s journey to applying and later acceptance into UC Berkeley was long and trying at times. However, people like Mrs. Hegney Pearce's high school advisor, proved to be significant help along the way.  “I was so grateful for Mrs. Hegney,” said Pierce. “Especially during junior and senior year when I was just a human ball of stress and anxiety.” Mrs. Hegney dedicated many hours assisting Pierce with college related tasks such as the FASFA, applications, and later on the pressure of opening her long-anticipated letter from UC Berkeley.

Pierce was informed that her decision letter would come sometime around March 27th. “I didn’t know that they would send the acceptance letter through email,” said Pierce.  “For weeks I would jump off the bus and run to check the mailbox; and yet nothing”.   One afternoon with her graduation from high school fast approaching Pierce logged onto a school computer to check her email.  To her surprise, her inbox had a total of three decision letters from the out of state colleges she had previously applied to; UC Berkley’s decision letter being one of them. Her reaction to open her other two acceptance letters from New York University and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) took a matter of seconds. *Click* Accepted. *Click* accepted. Her mouse lingered over her email from UC Berkley. Overwhelmed with nerves, excitement, and fear Pierce couldn’t open the letter for what seemed to be an agonizing 10 minutes. Upon opening her letter and comprehending her acceptance, Pierce was overcome with emotion.  “I had literally been waiting for this since 7th grade,” said Pierce.  “I couldn’t help it when I started crying, two weeks after I could have known.  They (acceptance letters) had been sitting there in my email.”

Following her acceptance into UC Berkley, Pierce felt the love of her small community as they celebrated the college pathway that she would soon be following.  "The school would actually make announcements when the seniors got accepted to colleges," said Pierce. "We had like a chart and a poster that tracked which college’s people got into”.  When they announced on the intercom that I got accepted, I started crying," said Pierce. "I called my grandma right away and we both cried on the phone." Pierce attributes her success to her grandmother's unending encouragement during her upbringing, and to this day refers to her grandmother, Carleen Hunt, as her best friend.

Before she knew it, summer was over and Pierce was headed to California. Due to a housing crisis Pierce would not get to experience the comfort of a dorm room. This venture would begin with no family, no friends, many questions yet very few answers. As Pierce was adjusting to her first year at Berkeley, she received a special visit from her high school English teacher Jane Swiatek. Swiatek wore many hats as many rural school teachers do. She taught two AP English classes, journalism, year book and coached high school track and field.  Because of Allyson's fondness of Swiatek, she chose to participate in everything she taught, including track.

"Ms. Swiatek was a huge part of my life," said Pierce. "Every opportunity there was, she encouraged me to apply for scholarships, camps, leadership summit, college visits."

If Pierce didn't have the money, Swiatek covered the fee, if Pierce didn't have a ride, Swiatek drove her. 

When Swiatek came to visit Pierce at Berkeley, they spent the entire day together.  Pierce showed her the campus, they had lunch together. Swiatek even took her to Costco to stock up on groceries. 

"I think that is the best part of small schools," said Pierce. "you really do get to know the teachers on a much more personal level."

Another vivid memory of living in the bay area Pierce recalls was during a severe rain storm. She remembers driving to work and seeing a woman stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire.  The woman was beyond soaked. Pierce was shocked that no one would stop to help woman in the rain. 

"I honestly couldn’t believe no one was stopping to help her," said Pierce. "It was absolutely different from where I came from". 

Despite Pierces love of the bay area, her experience living in the big city lacked the small-town love and comfort that she was accustomed to.  In just three short years, while working full time, Pierce received her degree in Political Science.  During the spring break of her final year she came home and applied for a position with The Kalispel Tribe of Indians located in Usk, another rural community within 60 miles of her home town. Pierce was offered the position upon graduation and she moved home.  

"I wasn’t going to come back, I loved living in the bay area," said Pierce. "I got home sick. I had no connections, no family.  In small towns you know everybody, you care about everybody."

Despite Pierce's desire to go off to college and move out of her small rural town, the encouragement, love, and closeness she was surrounded by in her hometown was enough to bring her home. She is currently the Justice System Strategic Plan Coordinator for The Kalispel Tribe of Indians.  When her contract is completed she is considering pursuing further education in law school or grad programs in public policy. 

Allyson’s story goes to show that no matter where you’re from or how extreme the odds seem against you, with dedication and hard work the seemingly unattainable can be attained.

University of California Berkeley has a current acceptance rate of just 17.3%.