A Place That Has Made a Difference

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



Berea College in Berea, Kentucky.

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. 

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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.

“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.