A Journey to My Appalachian Identity
My journey to discover my Appalachian identity began after losing a career I had built over the span of six years in higher education. I had originally started a terminal degree at the university where I worked. I was about a year and a half into the program when I was asked to take the position of Dean of Students & Campus Life. During that time, the university was put under a show cause order by the High Learning Commission (HLC). A show cause order is issued when the HLC determines there is probable cause that an institution does not meet one or more criteria to remain accredited, and/or is not in compliance with other HLC requirements. I was advised to withdrawal from the terminal degree program to concentrate on my new position and to help with the show cause order. In 2012, the university lost its accreditation.
After I left the university, I needed some time to re-group. My undergraduate degree was in Hospitality and Tourism. So, I decided to go back to the West Virginia tourism industry that I loved. I spent about two years working for a local convention and visitors bureau. During that time something kept nudging me to research degree programs. The little voice in my head kept saying, “You need to finish what you started.” Finally, I called a colleague of mine who had enrolled in a degree program at Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne, IN. He highly recommended the program and offered to give me a reference for my application. I threw caution to the wind and applied to the PhD in Global Leadership program in 2014 and was accepted. The program was amazing! I learned so much in my classes and at the immersions (residencies). As a former Dean of Students & Campus Life, I worked with many international students. Therefore, my research interests were geared toward the international student experience. However, the longer I was out of higher education, the more my research interests began to change.
Everything started to change during my qualitative research course. I can still remember the exact day. I was working on my laptop in our sunroom. My husband was sitting in a recliner next to me. I suddenly threw up my hands in frustration and exclaimed that I had run out of ideas for the paper our professor had assigned. My husband calmly looked up from his phone and recommended that I write a paper on first generation Appalachian college students. It is amazing how someone standing outside the storm in your head can see a path straight through the problem. As recommended by my very own Appalachian MacGyver, that is exactly what I did.
It was with my newly found research interest that I began to read journal articles about Appalachia and youth in Appalachia. I read an article by Saba Rasheed Ali and Jodi L. Saunders entitled, College expectations of rural Appalachian youth: An exploration of social cognitive career theory factors, published in 2006 by The Career Development Quarterly. It was while reading the description of the Appalachian love of family and friends, preservation of land, and appreciation of our region’s history that I realized the authors were talking about me! Specifically, in the discussion about young Appalachians’ feelings of guilt for leaving their families behind in the region. Up until that point, I had not considered myself an Appalachian. In fact, at that point in my life I did not identify as a Hungarian American. I still do not identify as a hillbilly. I personally see that as a derogatory term. I also do not identify as a redneck. Historically, that is a derogatory term. My identity started to change as I learned more about Appalachia and Appalachians. My identity further changed as I searched for my Hungarian family and learned about Hungary.
My research of Hungary began with a paper on the Status of Higher Education in Hungarian education system for my Comparative Higher Education course. It was after I wrote this paper that I realized I had learned so much from the PhD in Global Leadership program about being a citizen in a global society. This realization inspired me to find my Hungarian family. After all, I am a researcher, right? I began to join Hungarian social media groups. In these groups I shared old passports, naturalization papers, photos, etc. I even created an Ancestory.com account. Finally, A Hungarian man from one of the Facebook groups reached out to me and shared that he had been in a similar situation and offered to help me. This man’s name was Tomas or Thomas. Tomas spent his weekends going door to door using the old addresses my mother had saved on postcards and letters. Through his persistence, Tomas found my family in March 2018. With that being said, my dissertation is not just a story about how a specific group of Appalachians view themselves in a global society. My research is also an example of how one person’s identity drastically changed over a period of 6 years.
Another journal article that really spoke to me during my dissertation research was written by Dr. Hilary Weaver, DSW entitled Indigenous Identity: What Is It, and Who Really Has It? I was so relieved to find this article because I was struggling with the idea of presenting and arguing Appalachians as an Indigenous population. I needed to prove this assertion if I was going to get approval to use Indigenous Methodology in conjunction with my qualitative research method. In her article Dr. Weaver uses a story called “The Big Game.” The story was ultimately about a basketball game that became about proving indigenous identity. Everyone had a different idea of how the players should prove they belonged to either the Lakota or Navajo tribes.
Dr. Weaver begins to answer the question of indigenous identity: What is it, and who really had it, by discussing the three facets of identity. The three facets are self-identification, community identification, and external identification. Dr. Weaver further states that identity may be a mixture of race, class, education, region, religion, and gender. Thinking back to when my journey started, my identity changed over a period of six years and continues to change to this day! This makes perfect sense as I learned from Weaver that we are not born with a set identity. We create our identities as we move through our lives. Identity creation is an ongoing process.
It was during the discussion of identity and relationships that I began to make a connection between the Native American and European immigrant identities. Both minority groups were assigned their identities by people outside of their cultural groups. Mainly the federal government and the press. Native Americans were assigned their identities to control their population and their lands. Europeans immigrating to the U.S. were required to redefine themselves as white to erase their national origins and cut ties with cultural groups.
People also learn about themselves through language, stereotypes, and distorted meanings. For instance, Dr. Weaver points out the label “Indian” has served to reinforce the image of Indigenous people as linked to a romantic past e.g., books and movies. According to my research, the label of “hillbilly” given to Appalachians also continues to be reinforced using images in cartoons, tv shows, movies, business logos, and postcards. Identity is also affected by recognition, absence of recognition, or misrecognition. According to Dr. Weaver, when society recognizes, ignores, or misconstrues an identity it is harmful and oppressive. This statement made me think of the strong and easily recognizable African, Mexican, and Italian heritages. One can see evidence of these cultures today in clothing, food, and music. Then I stopped to think about where my family came from (Hungary) and realized I rarely if ever see evidence of their presence here in Appalachian WV. It was at this point that my identity began to take another turn.
Dr. Weaver states, “It is misleading to assume that all Indigenous people experience a Native cultural identity in the same way just because they were born into a Native community. This glosses over the multifaceted and evolving nature of identity as well as cultural differences among and within Native nations.” When I sat down to really think about my identity, I realized there were multiple layers to who I am. For instance, I identified as an Appalachian, a Hungarian, an American, a West Virginia, a Southern West Virginian, a woman, and a PhD. My identity is also affected by context. For instance, my identity changes depending on whether I am in Appalachia, Monroe County, WV (where I grew up), the tourism industry, or at my alma matter Indiana Tech.
I am sure it is because of my tourism background that I decided to think of my journey in terms of a travel itinerary. For the first part of my life, I did not really stop to consider how I self-identified. When I entered middle age, I realized I was an Appalachian. As I explored that realization and carried on with my PhD program I decided to explore where else I came from. I decided to attempt to find my Hungarian family. This experience had several twists and turns. At first, I received a phone call telling me my Hungarian family was not interested in meeting me. I was disappointed but I had watched enough reality shows to know there was a chance that would be the outcome. A few weeks later, however, I received a Facebook message from a second cousin who was extremely excited to meet me.
The next leg of my journey took place in the form of research on my dad’s side of the family. I knew that my dad had been adopted by his biological mother’s sister and her husband. His last name was legally changed to a German surname. Therefore, I started to ask myself about the derivation of my paternal family. As it turns out, I am not only half Hungarian, but I am also a fourth British and a fourth Scottish! Now, I have arrived at a new point in my journey. I have discovered I identify as a Hungarian, a little British, a little Scottish, an Appalachian, a minority, and a PhD!
Dr. Weaver (2001) tells us that developing a cultural identity consists of a lifelong learning process of cultural awareness and understanding. As part of my lifelong learning process, I began studying Hungarian and the Hungarian culture! There are days I think becoming fluent in Hungarian will be harder than getting a PhD. It is the hardest language for an English-speaking person to learn. I have also developed greater respect for other minorities and people from multicultural backgrounds. I have begun to view their experiences and the experiences of Appalachians through a different lens. For instance, Dr. Walker points out that community identification takes place through traditions, land, and history. She examples this by telling the reader Native people often identify themselves by their reservations or tribal communities. Similarly, when I think of community identification in terms of Appalachians, this minority often identifies according to their situation in the region i.e., what part of the state they are located (SWV, panhandle, or central WV), school mascot (flying eagles or WVU mountaineers), or stereotypes (hillbilly or redneck). People also identify according to neighboring communities. It is an interesting thought that Native American tribes have the right to determine criteria for membership…but Appalachians do not. Another similarity I discovered from reading the article and my research is that community identification takes place through activism. Both Native Americans and Appalachians begin to see the significance of heritage and culture as a part of personal identity through activist efforts.
So far, my take-aways from this journey are that there is no consensus of how to measure identity. Race is not an indicator of culture. Additionally, identity should be assessed rather than assumed. I have also learned not to make assumptions based on appearance or genetic testing. Case in point, my ancestry.com test does not say I have Appalachian genetics! Furthermore, Dr Waver states, “Skin color and phenotype lead to assumptions about identity, suspicion, and lack of acceptance” (2001). Hungarian miners were second only to Italians as the most numerous immigrant group to work in West Virginia coal mines after the turn of the 20th century. My mother recently shared with me a personal experience that has happened to her several times during her lifetime. I have always noticed her skin was darker than most other people that are labeled “white.” My mother says that she will often walk into a room of people to be asked why her skin is so dark or where she got her tan in the middle of winter. I could tell these questions embarrassed and frustrated her. When I asked her how she responded to questions like these she said she just tells people, “This is my skin. This is how I look.” I have also had experiences over the years when I was asked if I was part African American. One man said he could tell because of my facial features. When I kept saying no, he became terribly upset with me because he assumed I was embarrassed of my African heritage.
As an Appalachian Hungarian American I ask anyone who reads this article to sit with the information and experiences I have shared here. I understand it is a lot to take in. Being an Appalachian means a lot of things. However, in terms of identity and culture we are from everywhere. Outsiders (government, media, Hollywood) have internally colonized us. We have self-colonized because the Appalachian region is the only ancestral home we have ever known. We have also been forced by outsiders such as missionaries to assume identities that conveniently separated us from the rest of the nation. Just because you label us as Appalachians, white, black, brown, LGBTQIA2S+ or otherwise, does not mean that is how we self-identify. Do not make assumptions, get to know us.
Saba, R. A., & Saunders, J. L. (2006). College expectations of rural Appalachian youth: An exploration of social cognitive career theory factors. The Career Development Quarterly, 55(1), 38-51. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-0045.2006.tb00003.x
Weaver, H.N. (2001). Indigenous identity: What is it, and who really has it? American Indian Quarterly, 25(2), 240-255.