Southern Souls in Ivy Towers

Southern Souls in Ivy Towers

By Helen Catherine Darby, Penn '20


When considering the geographic origins of Ivy League students, many think Greenwich, Andover, or New York City. When I tell people that I’m from Alabama, I receive surprised responses. 

Students from the southern United States comprise a small but steadily increasing portion of Ivy League student bodies. The Yale Daily News reported a rise in the number of Yale students from southern states (Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Oklahoma) from 11 percent in the Class of 2018 to 12.5 percent in the Class of 2020.

With the explosion of southern cities like Atlanta, Nashville, and Dallas as business and cultural centers, the South has fostered many elite universities like Vanderbilt, Emory, and Washington & Lee.  Consequently, the growth of these cities and their school systems has also made the Ivy League more accessible to southern students over time.

Being a minority at the Ivies, many southern students face a unique set of obstacles when adapting to life in the Northeast. For me, one of the biggest obstacles was adjusting to the lack of outward friendliness Northerners show in day-to-day interactions.  In Alabama, every stranger I pass smiles, waves, or asks how my day has been. Northerners are not necessarily unkind, but I feel less camaraderie among individuals than I feel present in the South.  

Rising sophomore Julian Assele (Yale ‘20) grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, a small town of approximately 20,000 people. Though Yale’s surroundings are less urban than major cities like New York or Philadelphia, Assele still remembers having to adapt to life in New Haven. 

“One thing I could not get over during my first couple weeks was the noise,” he said. “There's always some kind of siren or protest going off in the distance. You don't get near that kind of noise in the South.” 

For me, life in the South has always been as sweet and slow as molasses. Adjusting to the loud, high energy hustle and bustle of the Northeast presents a lifestyle change that southern students must often make when starting out at Northeastern schools like the Ivies. Assele noted that even in larger southern cities like Charleston, farms and rural landscapes were only a twenty-minute drive outside the city.

“If you want to find a nice and quiet spot, it’s not at all hard to find,” Assele said.

Another key cultural adjustment is transitioning from the extremely religious “Bible Belt” to the more secular Northeast. When asked the greatest difference between the South and the North, Assele immediately responded, “Religion, religion, religion.” 

He is not alone in this sentiment. In a study done by the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of southerners identified as Christians, and 59 percent as Protestant. In comparison, 65 percent of northeasterners identified as Christians, and 33 percent as Protestant.

Assele explains that many southerners feel their strongest connections to others in church. 

“In the Bible Belt, church isn't just a place of worship, but also of community, togetherness, and wholesomeness. Many meet friends and future spouses in their home church.”

When asked how this changed his view of the Northeast, Assele responded that faith and traditional values are the center of the moral framework in his hometown. This is not to say that many people in the Northeast do not also center their religious and social lives around similar values. Assele conceded that the Northeast is rooted on the “bedrock of the Protestant values of the Puritans,” but added that the region is much more secularized now than the South is.

“I don't see the same reverence for church and socially conservative values in New England as I do in the Southeast,” Assele explained.

Assele still misses a lot about life in the South, which he feels cannot be fully replaced by his new life at Yale.

“I miss the good food the older women at my church made for events. I miss the warm weather. I miss the down-to-earth people,” Assele said. “It's really hard to pinpoint exactly what aspect I miss about the South. I just miss the core of what makes the southern lifestyle wonderful. I can't tell you what it is. But I do know that whatever it is cannot be replicated anywhere else.” 

As a native of Birmingham, Alabama, I agree with Julian’s observations. I've faced my own challenges moving to the Northeast. Though Birmingham is a larger city than Greenwood, I grew up in quiet suburbs with the same religious influences as Julian.

Moving to Philadelphia has been a huge adjustment for me.  City life is fast-paced and doesn't wait for anyone, strangers tend not to care how your day has been, accents seem harsh compared to the sweet, southern drawl, and people definitely don't cook with enough butter.

It is missing; it will be something I'll seek out for my whole four years in the Northeast but will likely never find. 

Nevertheless, there are reasons that southerners like Julian and myself decide to take the leap and move to the North. Cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston provide endless adventures. They give us a continuous flow of new people to meet everyday. The connections forged in the Northeast, both social and professional, have no parallel. They will continue to provide us opportunities for the rest of our lives.

And the education you can receive at many universities in the Northeast is unbeatable. Assele particularly enjoys the perks of living in a place so steeped in the history of our nation.

“I like the history of the Northeast,” Assele said. “New Haven is a really historic and venerable place in New England.” 

Many young southerners are willing and ready to face the challenges posed by transitioning into the new landscapes of the Ivy League.  Many grow up longing to satisfy an itch for distance from home, larger, more diverse populations, and new adventures.  The Ivies certainly satisfy this itch and supply endlessly new, strange, and exciting experiences. 

But absolute assimilation is impossible for most, even for those who become completely comfortable living out Northeastern lives. No matter the effects of distance and time, Southern souls will always itch for it.