SALENA ZITO: These Harvard kids got the lesson of their life in the Heartland.

“The best way to blow apart a stereotype is to challenge it,” Kuang, an applied math and economics major, told me.

So, before we started traveling, we held several workshops to discuss their ideas about the “other” America.

Nearly all of them agreed that they didn’t know what life was like outside the coastal cities and states. Only one student, Henna Hundal, 20, had grown up in a rural environment — an almond farm in Turlock, Calif., — while Kessler, a computer-science major, was the only member of the class who had ever fired a gun. The students ranged in age from 19 to 21, with an equal number of girls and boys and a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The majority of them hailed from cities and suburbs in blue states along the East and West coasts. One was from Wales.

They admitted they had been fed a steady diet of stereotypes about small towns and their folk: “backwards,” “no longer useful,” “un- or under-educated,” “angry and filled with a trace of bigotry” were all phrases that came up.

And so we embarked on our journey. For the next few weeks I would conduct three classes in rural and industrial towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Most of the trips were a two-to-four-night stay, getting from place to place in a van and sleeping in locally owned B&Bs.

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