The Susquehanna Bank Center is little more than half an hour away from campus but walking through the venue’s parking lot tailgate on Saturday night, Penn felt very far away.
Long rows of pickup trucks with doors flung open blared country music. People in cowboy hats and plaid western shirts were drinking in the flatbeds of the trucks in preparation for a Keith Urban, Little Big Town and Dustin Lynch concert.
As a life-long city girl from New York, it was a completely new experience for me. This was an aspect of America that I had never seen before. However, the Penn Rural and Agricultural Society, a new group on campus that took me along to the concert, was right at home.
“These are my people. This is where I come from,” said College sophomore and Montana native John Lillegard, quoting country singer Rodney Adkins. He and Hannah Peifer, a College freshman from rural Northeast Pennsylvania, high-fived each other.
Seeing the contrast between an average Saturday night at Penn and the atmosphere at the concert, it really made sense why John and College junior Austin Lara formed PRAS.
Austin first came up with the concept for the club while riding a tractor on his parents’ almond farm in rural northern California. “I’m used to having a rooster wake me up at home and having one neighbor. Coming to Penn is such a transition,” he said. “I had trouble finding people who could relate to me.”
He then enlisted the help of John, a friend of his, to make his idea into a real group.
The group plans to hold events to educate the Penn community about issues surrounding agriculture and to volunteer at a community garden this year.
On the train to the concert, the group discussed the tenuous state of small farmers in America, a risky venture that does not guarantee any profit. Hannah recounted a story of a high school friend who tried to start his own dairy farm, to no avail. He had to sell most of his cows and is now in debt.
“For a small farmer, you just can’t [succeed],” she said.
John agreed. “You can’t get into [farming]. It’s such a big investment,” he said.
But it’s not only the lack of discourse about agriculture and open space that makes Penn feel foreign to rural students. Students in PRAS recounted experiencing culture shock when they first came.
“It’s really a culture, growing up in a rural area,” Hannah said.
When she heard country music playing at the student activities fair a few weeks earlier, she immediately went over to the PRAS table. “I said, ‘I need to make friends with them.’”
As the sun set behind the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Philadelphia skyline, Little Big Town sang about fishing on the pontoon, tin roofs and going to church.
Austin was especially excited to hear Little Big Town play “Boondocks,” a song about being proud of being from rural America.
“That song is my life,” he said.
And it was clear he was not the only one. When the band strummed the opening chords, the crowd cheered and the band paused. The cheers then grew louder and louder.
“He’s making us wait. He’s teasing us,” said Austin.
The singers laughed and the band launched into the song. Austin, John, Hannah and College sophomore Dani Tiger knew all the words.
“I feel no shame. I’m proud of where I came from. I was born and raised in the boondocks,” they sang.