I tell people I am a small-town girl who grew up in the Atlanta suburbs. Roswell, GA is a place rich in Southern history and significance. During the Civil War, the local textile mill was razed, and 400 female workers and children were shipped North. Reconstruction gave way to a countryside of green hills and fertile farmland. What do we have today to connect us to our complex heritage? A string of swim and tennis subdivisions and fast-food chains? Residents of Roswell and other affluent sections of Cobb County are known by the stinging moniker “East Cobb Snobs,” a far cry from the extraordinary legacy that came before.

Though I have affection for my hometown, I recognize the sea of white afforded me privileges that I didn’t always comprehend. In my community, people assumed everyone had money. They viewed the world as a consumable utopia, suited for their own wants and needs. Kids didn’t sweat about dropping their parent’s money on front-row concert tickets, copycat designer wardrobes, and showy prom gowns.

I found this ostentatious attitude jarring. My family could not spend money frivolously. In my mind, we bore a scarlet M—Middle Class. The older I got, the more I realized how distorted that view was compared to the shocking reality of inherited poverty. My self-esteem recovered and evolved, rejecting the smugness of my classmates, gravitating towards volunteer work to alleviate the guilt of my advantage.

Kelsey on her high school graduation day.

The high school I graduated from was marshmallow white. Demographically speaking I was in the majority, yet I never understood my classmate’s mentality. Lunch table conversations focused on their sole gratification, speeding ahead to the next trendy song, the next smart gadget, or next whatever. I preferred slower and simpler.

My search for genuineness manifests itself in my love for country music. From Johnny Cash, the original rebel, to modern country heroes like Miranda Lambert, this is a language I can understand. Not the watered down formulaic bubblegum that counts for pop music on the radio these days. My peers consider country to be “old people” music. This makes sense, as I have more in common with older individuals than my millennial generation.

This was and is my dilemma with my hometown: I’m an old soul living in an old place that covers over its past with a glaze of white privilege. It’s no wonder my skin felt raw as I pushed against the grain others had set. I needed to escape to a place that better recognized and celebrated its Southern roots. College and a cosmic sense of purpose led me to Carrollton, GA.

University of West Georgia graduate, Lillian Williams.

At its best, higher education opens the world up to us, allows us to take a frank look at all there is to see. I wasn’t encased in a saccharine suburban cocoon. During my time at the University of West Georgia, I have met fascinating peers and professionals from all over the world. What interests me most about my university is its commitment to change. According to the Associated Press, the first African-American student to graduate from UWG was Lillian Williams in 1967. Since then, UWG is over 35 percent African American, and just under 50 percent of all UWG students are listed as an ethnicity other than white, per collegefactual.com.

Every day, I interact with people with alternative views and experiences I cannot imagine. At one time, I lived in a Christian youth house, and two Saturdays a month, we hosted a large group of Chinese students that would come for a traditional meal and Bible study. The language barrier definitely prevailed at moments. Despite the difficulties, each time I interacted with the international students, I met a group of young people dedicated to learning, with a strong work ethic and sense of personal responsibility. These bright students left the families and boarded a plane to spend a year in a place they have only seen on television or in movies. I admired their brave quest to pursue their studies and experience a different culture. What a contrast to a good number of students I see who don’t bother to attend class.

I found Southern diversity in a college town. Yet at its core, Carrollton is like thousands of comfortable small towns that populate the region: a single movie theater and a “downtown” of boutique stores that all close on Sundays. This is the heart of the New South, acceptance and inclusion, founded on the universal values of family and hard work. Some things will change about the South, but we will always say Y’all instead of you all and drink our sweet tea.

Approaching graduation, I ponder my next steps. Ideally, I want to continue writing stories that readers might have missed. Whether it’s an underground Atlanta rock band or a riveting poem, I want to highlight art and contribute my own creativity. Then I can live out my own Southern Fried Karma.

-Kelsey Asher