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True W.Va. stereotype is resilience, compassion, resourceful

Published in "The wild, wonderful, complex, misunderstood image of West Virginia" (Daily Mail WV) in the February 1, 2019 edition of the Gazette-Mail.

By Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University

Those who view the Oscar-nominated short film “Heroin(e),” directed by West Virginia University alumna Elaine McMillion Sheldon, get a glimpse into our state’s opioid problem. And rather than simply seeing one more negative portrayal of West Virginia, they see the strength and compassion three women are harnessing to confront the problem in their respective roles as a fire chief, a judge and the leader of a ministry.

This excellent film came to mind when I was thinking about the frequent stereotype of West Virginians as uneducated, unsophisticated and unambitious “hillbillies.”

After traversing the hills and highways of this state for five years, as well as watching thousands of West Virginia students thrive on our campuses, I know this stereotype clashes sharply with reality. Most Mountaineers, instead, resemble “Heroin(e)’s” Jan Rader, Patricia Keller and Necia Freeman — down-to-earth, hard-working and resourceful.

The West Virginians I meet are eager to acquire skills they can use to make life better for their families and their communities. This desire to confront challenges and help people close to home is typical of this region’s citizens, according to a report called “Appalachia Rising” by the nonprofit research group CNA.

This impulse is something state leaders must keep in mind as we revamp our education system to increase access and accommodate rapidly changing workplace skill-sets. While not everyone needs a four-year college degree, everyone needs some post-secondary training to succeed in today’s economy. When Mountaineers bring both solid credentials and their traditionally solid values to the table, they can move mountains.

However, we must stop undervaluing ourselves. When I returned to West Virginia I saw that its citizens remained, over all those years, too damn humble. And I mean humble to a fault.

We must take pride in our uniquely resilient character—honed by adversity and inspired by compassion for our neighbors. And we must take every opportunity to show that Mountaineer spirit to the world.