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What Does Swannanoa Think of Warren Wilson?

By: Leo Proechel, Staff Writer

     Warren Wilson is often considered an ultra-liberal, unconventional, somewhat self-sustaining college in the middle of a traditionally Conservative region of the country. As a Wilson student, I’ve often wondered what people in the nearby area think of Wilson. What impact does Wilson have on the woman who lives down Riceville road? When I walk into a restaurant in Black Mountain, does the waiter have some preconceptions about my behavior? How many people even know what Warren Wilson is?

In order to answer these questions, I drove around this area and talked to people at bus stops, in gas stations, and at fast-food restaurant counters. I was also able, with the help of one of my interviewees, to circulate an email questionnaire amongst Swannanoa residents.

One of the first questions I asked people was what interactions they had had with Wilson. About a tenth of the people I talked to didn’t know what Warren Wilson was. Most had loose connections through friends or having attended events. About a fifth had deeper connections, such as having audited classes or even sent their children to Wilson.

 When people described their general image of Wilson, common themes of note were the farm, the campus, the work and service programs, and the liberal tendencies. With permission, I’ve selected a few answers that I think were interesting or representative of common themes:

“We both love the work/study program and believe it’s really important for students to do community and school work. We love that it is a place where anyone can go and be accepted and that it’s a place for students who might not feel comfortable in a traditional college. I especially love the farm aspect of the school.”

“I very much appreciate the uniqueness of the focus on work and service combined with education. I think Warren Wilson blends in with Asheville, but not so much with the region. I have a hunch that Ashevillians are pleased/proud to have Warren Wilson in their midst and have an attitude that would like to claim ownership of Warren Wilson. I think its focus on sustainable and organic gardening has probably had a broad influence on the community over decades: gardening classes have been taught to the public for years.”

“What’s not to like? I like the emphasis on the environment and social/political concerns. I like the students who I’ve met. They are interesting, friendly, and ‘colorful.’”

With employees of restaurants and gas stations, Wilson had an especially excellent reputation. Said one woman, ”They have a good work ethic. I’ve heard they produce a good education. They tip well. I’ve always enjoyed the students.”

A brand new worker at the Shell station also had good things to say. “A lot of students come in here. They usually get the cigars and a lot of health bars and a lot of juices. [They] are pretty cool, pretty chill.”

And to some, like the woman behind the counter at McDonald’s, Wilson is just a notable piece of her environment.  “I have always lived here and the college has always been there,” she said. “I like to take my grandchildren up to see the little pigs. It teaches people how to grow things in other countries, right?”

 It was a little more difficult to get people to come up with what they didn’t like. A few said they thought of Wilson students negatively as “hippies,” and others spoke of low motivation among some students. The most common criticisms were about students’ lack of open mindedness and strong endorsement of their political beliefs. Here are a few of the answers I’ve selected with permission in response to questions about what people didn’t like about Wilson:

 “Sometimes I think there’s a little too much ‘being different’ just for the sake of being different. Many times, [students] are scruffily-clad as if they don’t care what they look like. I say, ‘There are WWC students!’ I say it in a loving way. Other people in the community say it in a derogatory way. They feel offended and lacking in trust toward people who present to the world in a counter-culture way.”

“When I took classes in the early 2000’s, I was surprised that students didn’t seem very open minded, though they seemed to think that they were. The most outspoken students seemed more interested in stating their opinions than learning any new information or listening to differing viewpoints. While they had ‘liberal’ ideas and beliefs, they didn’t seem at all receptive to differing perspectives. I’ve had colleagues at both WWC and Mars Hill. In our dialogues comparing responses of students on the two campuses, non-Christian or non-traditional students at MH felt more accepted and welcomed than Christian or conservative students at WWC who actually felt isolated and judged.”

“The students (and maybe faculty) are at times less tolerant of students at other colleges who express conservative thought than students at a conservative college have been of Warren Wilson students.”

My favorite answer was from an elderly lady I found shopping for vegetables at Ingles. “You want my honest opinion?” she asked me, quizzically. “They call it the hippy college. [But] to each their own. A good friend of mine’s son went there. He went to all these other colleges and he couldn’t fit in anyplace else, but he fit in at Warren Wilson. So I don’t have any problem with that. Everyone lives their own life. I mean, I’m an elderly lady–I have things that I don’t quite understand about the gay life and the lesbian life, but that’s me–that’s the generation I was raised in. As long as they don’t bother me, then I don’t care.”

 Despite receiving these interesting answers, no one I talked to outright disliked Wilson. I began to feel as though I must be missing something–with the apparent juxtaposition of political beliefs and cultural norms, I had expected at least one person to be upset about having the school in their community.  I decided if anyone had something really bad to say about Wilson, it would be Buncombe County native Dr. Carl Mumpower, former conservative member of Asheville’s City Council and 2008 Republican nominee for Congress, who crusaded for many years against drug culture in Asheville.  Here’s what I got out of Dr. Mumpower regarding what he dislikes about Wilson:

“Your confusion on the crucial differences between a liberal education and liberalism. In earlier days Warren Wilson offered a mirror image of the best qualities found in the Swannanoa Valley. That connection began to break in the seventies, and accepting transplants with similar left-leaning values, the school now has a very little in common with the surrounding community. It’s a guess, but I bet few local families seek to educate their children at Warren Wilson.”

However, Dr. Mumpower also added that “Warren Wilson is a pleasant, safe, and nurturing environment habituated to the fantasies of progressivism. I completed a graduate teaching internship in social work at Warren Wilson in 1975.”

Dr. Mumpower also offered a little wisdom and advice for Wilson students. “(1) Pay more attention to how my generation is pillaging your future. (2) Don’t buy the con on marijuana’s innocence and (3) Be aware that anyone promising you something for nothing is not your friend.”  I’m not sure what he meant by this last one, but I think it has something to do with politicians.

 Obviously, my questioning process was not scientific, my selection of interviewees was not completely random, and my analysis was unmethodical. This research may or may not represent what most people in the area actually think of Wilson. However, it is noteworthy that most people I talked to were unable to think of things they didn’t like about Wilson. Moreover, every single criticism was accompanied by praise of some sort. I hope that this gives a better understanding to Wilson students about how they are viewed, and may perhaps improve their interactions with the community.


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