A Place That Has Made a Difference

Thousands of poor Appalachian students have found a way to Berea College. I was just one of them.

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A couple of week ago, I received a newspaper clipping from the Berea (Ky.) Citizen newspaper. The article was headlined, “Berea College reducing budget, staff due to economic slide.” According to the report, 30 full-time positions and 9 part-time positions are being cut to save money. 

I had some hints that Berea College was hurting. I had made a submission to the “notes” section of the Berea College Magazine, where alumni tell something of their lives since graduation. I struggled for days trying to come up with something “good” to say about myself and the three books I had written about Appalachia. After sending in my contribution, however, I was told that some editions of the publication had been cancelled and that the next magazine wouldn’t be out until next spring.

Wall Street and this global financial crisis have blindsided Berea College, I’ve since learned. Other colleges have the same problem and they are coping with their financial downturn by increasing the cost of tuition.  Berea College does not have this option for raising cash because this 159-year-old institution of higher learning charges NO TUITION. If Berea College were to have to reduce or close this would be a major disaster for Appalachia’s “poor” students. 

There are so many stories of how and why students end up at Berea College. Though the names and faces change, the stories have a common thread — a desire to learn, a lack of funds and a Southern Appalachian background.  

The story I know best of Berea College, of course, is my own. 

Berea College
From its first days, Berea College has required its students to work. Here a student works at the college creamery.

During my senior year at Nicholas County High School, a small rural school located in the Appalachian coalfields of West Virginia, the school counselor called me to her office to ask what I was planning on doing after high school graduation.  My reply was, “I plan on going to college.”  That was it. I planned on going to college. I didn’t know where or how.  

My parents and five brothers had moved from West Virginia to the West Coast between my 9th and 10th grades in high school. My father was lured to Oregon and Washington by talk of big timber and big game hunting.  Several uncles, aunts and cousins moved simultaneously to the same area and lived within sight of each other. Both my grandmothers moved later. In essence, they moved a mini-Appalachian village to the West Coast.  Wherever they landed, because they moved as a clan, they were always home in Appalachia.  The biggest part of the clan involved in the western migration finally settled in the foothills of Mt. St. Helens, Washington.

I went west on one trip with my family. I can’t remember exactly how we traveled, but my brothers and I probably rode in the back of a pickup truck with a cab on it. I do remember sleeping  in sleeping bags under the stars at night, Mother cooking our meals on a Coleman camp stove and my father telling stories around the campfire at night.

Betty Dotson-Lewis today.

But on the final trip west from the 42-acre farm located on a rural one-lane road where coal miners and farmers lived in Nicholas County,  I stayed behind in West Virginia with my sister. When I think back on it, I was 15 years old and pretty much on my own.  My life centered around school, church and doing housework for people to earn money.

When I told my counselor I had no idea where I would be going to college, especially with no funds, she suggested Berea College in Kentucky.  I said OK even though I did not know one thing about Berea College.  I had taken the SAT and ACT tests earlier in my senior year or junior year.  My counselor was able to put in an application for me along with my college entrance test scores.

 I was accepted as a student at Berea College. 

**

Berea College
Rev. John G. Fee, founder of Berea College.

Rev. John G. Fee founded Berea College in 1855. He was an abolitionist assisted by the American Missionary and Cassius M. Clay, a local antislavery politician and well-to-do land owner of Madison County, Kentucky. Rev. Fee based his new school on the Christian principles of anti-rum, anti-caste prejudice and anti-sectarianism.  The school was situated at the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, approximately 40 miles south of Lexington and the Bluegrass in a small town by the same name as the college, Berea.

Berea began its service to the poor students of the Southern Appalachian Region in 1858, only three years after the founding of the college following a trip through the mountains by Principal J. A. R. Rogers who identified the region as a “neglected part of the country.”  Berea began to educate Appalachia’s poor — black and white, men and women.  Students all had jobs at the college, both as a way to help them pay their expenses and to dignify work at a time when manual labor and slavery tended to be synonymous in the South. During the Civil War, Fee and his followers were run out of Madison County by pro-slavery proponents. Fee used this time to raise funds for the college. He returned to his life’s work at the close of the war.

This liberal arts college awards full scholarships to promising but poor Appalachian students.  The cost is more than $24,500 per year for each of the 1,500 full time students enrolled at the college. Also full scholarships are awarded to students from at least 70 countries.

All students at Berea are still assigned jobs. Money earned may be used to purchase books, clothes, or even help out the family at home. Community service is incorporated into the curriculum.

Although the college no longer participates in filling out surveys used for rankings by U.S. News and World Report Magazine,  year after year for the past decade, Berea was ranked as the best college of the South.  

**

I did not have an opportunity to visit Berea before the school year started simply because I had no means of transportation nor extra money to spend on travel and lodging. It was good enough that I was accepted at a college where you did not have to pay tuition and you had the opportunity to work for room, board and spending money. I was thrilled with this setup.  

For most students, high school graduation is a big night for the family. I remember the night of my graduation. My sister was the only member of my family able to attend. I didn’t expect my parents to travel from the West Coast to see me graduate from high school.  The thought never crossed my mind.  I was proud to receive several awards on that night.  I knew my parents would be proud.

That summer after high school graduation I was able to visit my parents in Washington.  I had not seen them since they left West Virginia. This trip west was by Greyhound bus. I was 17 years old and alone on a four day and four night bus trip across the United States.  I made notes along the way of people I met and things I saw out the window as we sped across the states. I spent that summer with my parents and brothers.  I worked as a waitress at one of the local diners. The lumberjacks were amused with my West Virginia twang.  My parents, who migrated from Grundy, Virginia, to West Virginia held on to their original southwest Virginia dialect, which made them even more popular with the westerners.

This was also the summer one of my brothers, Sam, came home from the Army on leave.  It was the Vietnam War era. My father had spent a great deal of his time lobbying the President of the United States and the Governor of Washington in regard to his boys and Vietnam. He presented his case: He had five sons. Three had served in the military or were currently serving. He wanted assurance his two youngest sons, who were drafted, would not be shipped to Vietnam.  After countless letters and phone calls, he won his case.  So, Sam, son #4, was coming home for leave and would be shipped overseas, but not to Vietnam.

His bus would arrive around 3 a.m. in a town about 50 miles from our home. My mother told me that we would need to be there at the Greyhound Bus Terminal to meet him. The only odd thing about this seemingly normal situation was that I would be driving. I had no driver’s license, nor any experience behind the wheel.  My Mother did not drive. We had a large flatbed truck.

Around midnight my mother woke me up and told me it was time to go get Sam.  We got into the truck with me under the steering wheel and Mother on the passenger side. I got the truck started and in a gear that moved forward and we took off.  The midnight surrounding the two us in that flatbed truck was blue-black and a heavy fog hung over the lake as we drove by Mossy Rock at the base of Mt. St. Helens. But the road was straight and wide with no traffic, and we were very happy to see Sam.


August rolled around and it was time for me to go to Berea College. My father had never mentioned my good fortune.  In fact, he never brought up the subject of my education during the entire summer.  Neither did I.  But the time came for me to leave my parents and return East.  There were no plan in place to finance this trip. I had worked off and on during the summer but had helped my parents out with living expenses. 

A few days before it was time for me to leave in order to arrive at Berea in time for freshmen orientation, three of my brothers got together and came up with a plan to get me a one-way ticket from Seattle to Berea.  At that time, wood shakes were in demand on the West Coast. My brothers raised the money for my bus ticket by cutting down a couple of trees, sawing them into shakes and selling them on the spot. My father was still not very high on my leaving home and returning to the East. It would have suited him better had I just stayed at home with my family.

When the day came for me to leave, my Father was not around. He had gone to the woods.  My brothers picked up my old olive green Army footlocker, given to me by my oldest brother when he returned home from the Army.  They loaded the footlocker up on the flatbed truck, stuck me inside between them and headed off to the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Seattle. They went inside with me, purchased my one-way ticket, gave me spending money and told me to  sit up front on the bus. I headed back east on the front seat of a Greyhound bus with a few dollars in my purse, a few more dollars pinned in my underwear by my Mother and everything I owned packed in a green Army footlocker tucked underneath.  

Berea College
Berea students joined the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The college was begun by abolitionists before the Civil War.
I sat on the front seat and got acquainted with my traveling partner, a just-released jailbird traveling from Seattle to Arizona to reunite with her children. She had just served four years and was missing her family. She was broke so I gave her one of my $20 bills my brothers had given me and told me to hold on to.  We became pretty good friends by the time she got off.  I got acquainted with a few more people along the way but did not get as close with the others as I had with the jailbird. I remember her vividly. She had reddish blond hair with dark streaks.  It was shoulder length, wavy and needed combing. Her red dress buttoned down the front and several buttons were missing.  She had long fingernails. One of her front teeth was missing and she carried her high heels in her hand and just walked around barefoot. She told me all about being in prison. I remember feeling so sorry for her and wanting to help.

On the fourth day, late in the evening, I arrived at Berea College.  The bus station was in a popular drugstore/restaurant, The Carlton, where the college kids hung out. I waited for my footlocker to be unloaded.  Some of the college students were there to meet the bus and help freshmen, like me, find their dorm rooms.

One professor asked students to draw a map of where they came from to attend Berea College.  I saw some of the maps – single wide trailers, coal camp houses, four-room farm houses up long narrow dirt roads surrounded by rows of corn or tobacco. That was me.

**

On February 13,  2009 we were glued to our TV sets watching Diane Sawyers discover “The Hidden America: Children of the Mountains.” Hundreds of viewers logged on to give their comments on the show and express their concern for the children of Appalachia. One little girl wanted a pair of Hannah Montana boots. High school football star Shawn Grim wanted to get an education to break the cycle of poverty he was raised in. Two little girls wanted their mommy off drugs.

What has happened after this 20/20 special?  I’m not sure except that ABC had very high ratings for that show and Diane Sawyer made the rounds to talk shows.  I heard that someone was sending a pair of Hannah Montana boots to one little girl and Shaw Grim had an offer to attend college near his home.    

But long-term effects, I am not sure.  I do know Berea College offers a way to break the cycle of poverty, to remove negative feelings about one’s identify (racial and cultural) and to instill a need to give back to the community.

The newspaper article in the Berea Citizen, May 7, 2009, explained Berea College relies on endowment earnings to fund 80 percent of its annual operating budget. According to those in charge at Berea, the college is closely monitoring financial market conditions and as I write this article the college is implementing processes to secure Berea’s future and that of Appalachia’s poor in a resource-restricted world.

 

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