Berea Spotlight

Glimpsing Difference

Posted on by Zachary Thompson

Comparing the student experience at a big state university and a small private college (that provides full tuition scholarships for every student)

In the Spring of 2012, EKU Junior Zachery Thompson interned in the Public Relations Office at Berea College. He compared the student life experience at Eastern Kentucky University — a large public university (over 17,000 students) with the student life experience at Berea College, a small, private liberal arts college with well under 1,700 students, all of whom receive full tuition scholarships for four years. He described his comparison in nine posts to a blog titled “Glimpsing Difference.” Here are his posts, from beginning to end.

February 7, 2012
INTRODUCTION

It’s funny how you can live your entire life in one town and hardly know anything about a college that has been at your backdoor the entire time. I thought I knew what Berea College was all about. However, in the short time I have delved into Berea College life, I am finding that there is so much more to learn than I originally thought. My name is Zack Thompson, a Berea resident for 21 years, and a senior at Eastern Kentucky University (in Richmond, just 12 miles north of Berea). Over the next few months, I will be touring the Berea College campus, meeting as many people as I can and exploring some of this college’s most unique characteristics.

Before visiting Berea College, in my mind it was simply “that liberal arts college” in my hometown. As far as previous knowledge goes, I knew that Berea caters to students of limited economic resources and that every student receives a 4-year scholarship to attend. I also knew I could never attend because my family didn’t fit within the financial parameters. Because of that, I never bothered learning much about the college or what it has to offer. Aside from having a gym membership at Seabury Center, Berea College’s athletics and health facility, I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve stepped foot inside any one of the campus’s other buildings. After spending a couple of weeks learning about Berea College, I can truly say I wish I had learned what the institution stands for a long time ago.

I have a newfound appreciation for Berea College and what it does for the community. Not just the Berea community or the Appalachian community, even. Berea College’s long-standing tradition of learning, labor, and service expands to students throughout the entire world. I am enthralled to have the opportunity to visit the Berea campus as an outsider from EKU, and I am beginning to sense I will experience things I wouldn’t find anywhere else. I hope you will keep an eye out for my “Glimpsing Difference” posts. I look forward to sharing with you the differences I discover between Eastern Kentucky University (over 20,000 students) and Berea College (well under 2,000 students).

February 9, 2012
VISIT TO THE APPALACHIAN CENTER

When I was told I would be visiting the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center on Berea College’s campus to attend a concert, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hearing the word “center” painted a picture in my mind of a venue similar to EKU’s Center for the Arts, across from Alumni Coliseum off exit 87 in Richmond, KY. EKU’s performing arts center holds a 2,100-seat performance hall. As I walked into the Appalachian Center, I immediately realized it wasn’t what I had imagined. The building was considerably smaller than I thought. While I wasn’t able to tour the entire center, I spent the evening in a room with wall-to-wall Appalachian culture.

I had the privilege of hearing Sam Gleaves — a student well known on Berea’s campus —  perform a number of selections off his new album. The concert took place on Thursday, February 9, 2012. Even though I admit I have never been a fan of Appalachian music, Gleaves captivated me the entire evening. I found myself humming some of the tunes I heard the next day on my way to class at EKU. Throughout the evening, Gleaves, his friends, and even one of his professors played and danced to a number of charming mountain songs. He captured the entire audience not only with his songs, but also with stories of his time spent in North Carolina with ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams.

I hope to tour the rest of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center in the coming weeks. The building is a learning experience in and of itself. It exudes Appalachian culture. The Appalachian Center is informative and inviting at the same time. Compared to the EKU performing arts center, Gleave’s concert was an intimate, close-up engagement. I couldn’t help but carry away with me a notion that that’s the way his Appalachian music, some of it several generations old, was always intended to be heard.

February 23, 2012
“This is My Heart for You” — ANOTHER BEREA COLLEGE SURPRISE

In the past, and especially in the last year, Appalachia has been labeled as a place of racism, discrimination, and hatred towards anybody perceived to be different. These issues aren’t exclusive to Appalachia, but they are prevalent in the area. Problems of this nature linger throughout the country and world. Award-winning regional author Silas House’s latest work, “This is My Heart for You,” addresses these issues headfirst. However, the play isn’t meant to be an attack on the fundamentalist views that many hold near to their hearts. According to House, “the play is meant to reveal all concerned as full-fledged human beings.”

I attended the premiere of “This is My Heart for You” on February 22. The Jelkyl Drama Center on Berea’s campus was absolutely packed. The small platform seemed to be the perfect size for the play’s minimalist approach. It made for an intimate and up close evening. The actors did a fantastic job portraying their individual characters. Megan Jones, who plays Willa, really stood out to me. Willa is the best friend of Jesse, the story’s main character. Jones did an exceptional job in her role and was a picture of acceptance, love, and support, with a touch of humor.

It’s no wonder why House has received numerous honors and awards. This causes me to propose a question that has come across my mind several times in the past few weeks. How does Berea College do it? How does this institution manage to offer a free education to all its students and still present wonderful opportunities to them at the same time? Furthermore, how do they manage to employ such accomplished people like Silas House? House is a New York Times bestselling author. He has won several awards for his works. Why would someone who has achieved such levels of success choose to work at such a small institution like Berea College? Personally, I feel it is his strong connection to Appalachia. It’s obvious he loves the region. There seems to be something magical that draws people like him to Berea though. I hope to find out what that special “thing” is.

March 1, 2012
STUDYING ABROAD VIA BEREA COLLEGE AND EKU

Studying abroad is an experience of a lifetime that only some college students are exposed to. Going to an institution of higher learning in a foreign country enables you to become immersed in a new language and broaden your horizons to become more global. After looking into Berea College and Eastern Kentucky University’s study abroad programs, I found some staggering differences. I have not studied abroad myself, which doesn’t come as a surprise. The national average of university students that study abroad is just over one percent, according to NAFSA (the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors). However, Berea College sends a much higher number of students abroad than the national average.

Around 50 percent of all Berea College students take time to study abroad during their college career, according to Adam Bailey, Education Abroad Manager at Berea. The campus sends anywhere between 100 and 200 students abroad every year. My immediate question was this: How? How do 50 percent of Berea College students manage to study abroad? EKU sends, on average, 75 students out of the 16,000 enrolled (half as much as the national average, percentagewise). After asking around, I found that there are two key factors, in my opinion, that allow more Berea students to study abroad. Numerous scholarships are available, enough to cover a large portion of one’s traveling expenses. It is also highly encouraged at Berea College.

The opportunity to study abroad was a deciding factor in attending Berea for Jessica Holly ’12. Holly studied travel writing and an introductory course in German culture and language in Austria for five weeks through the KIIS program (Kentucky Institution for International Studies). She received two scholarships through the study abroad program at Berea. After Holly’s trip to Austria, she only has a modest government loan to pay back after she graduates. Students who choose to study abroad at EKU may end up paying quite a bit more.

The study abroad program at EKU is unfortunately not sending as many students abroad as it would like to. In fact, there is currently no full-time study abroad staff on board. However, the program hopes to hire their first full time international education director very soon. I got in contact with Michele Gore, director of the study abroad program at EKU. She is also a professor of social work at Eastern. First of all, I admire Ms. Gore tremendously for taking on her two positions. She is doing great work in the study abroad program at EKU, given the limited resources. We both agree, however, that not having full-time study abroad staff limits the program indefinitely. Another factor could be the overall student population. Berea has a higher percentage of “diverse” students, those coming in from other states and countries. A large number of EKU students commute and have work and family responsibilities that prevent them from travelling. The educational budget climate also attributes to the program’s size. Before President Doug Whitlock came into office, international education received almost no attention. The program has come a long way, but still isn’t up to par with other state universities.

So why is Berea sending more students abroad, both percentagewise and in whole numbers? Financial restrictions play a significant role at EKU. The outreach at Berea is stronger. However, I believe the program will grow at EKU once some full-time staff is hired. If you’re looking to study abroad, there are scholarships available. There might not be as many available at EKU, but as Berea College exemplifies, and Ms. Gore said, “you don’t have to be wealthy to study abroad. There are ways to make it happen!”

March 24, 2012
STUDENT GOVERNMENTS AT BEREA COLLEGE AND EKU

If you’re a college student looking to make a difference in your campus, participating in student government could be just what you’re after. I’ve never been involved in student government, so comparing the two associations at Berea College and Eastern Kentucky University started with learning the general purpose and mission of the organizations.

To do this, I spoke with the student body presidents at both institutions. The common bond that holds true for all student body presidents is that they are the voice of the entire student body. It is the president’s primary duty to hear the needs, wants, and concerns of the students at his or her institution and let them be known to the powers that be. This is only one of the many tasks these presidents face each day.

There are several key differences to the student government at EKU and Berea. Rachel Mollozzi, SGA president at EKU, gave me a brief overview of our student government association. First of all, there are a few paid positions in SGA at EKU. The president receives a full tuition scholarship, full housing scholarship, as well as a stipend. The vice president receives a partial tuition scholarship, full housing scholarship, and a stipend equal to that of the president. Mollozzi says her basic duties include implementing a budget, appointing a cabinet, creating organizational goals, supervising staff, serving on the Board of Regents, and carrying out various policies. Her most important responsibility, however, is serving as a voice for EKU’s over 17,000 students. Mollozzi says her primary reason for running for SGA president was to increase student involvement on Eastern’s campus. I believe she is doing a stellar job at accomplishing her goal. For example, she introduced a referendum for the expansion of the fitness and wellness center on campus. In the future, she plans on reforming student parking and introducing a program similar to the University of Kentucky’s “Tally Cats” program to increase student involvement called “E-ranks.” This program allows students to check in at various campus events to gain points, which can later be redeemed for prizes. Needless to say, Rachel Mollozzi is putting her heart and soul into everything she does as SGA president to make the student experience at EKU an enjoyable one.

While EKU SGA focuses its energy toward better campus life, Sean Litteral, SGA president at Berea, wants to make an impact on the community outside campus. He says he believes student government is not doing enough until its impact is felt in the community. I was also given a brief overview of Berea College’s SGA. There is one paid position in all of Berea SGA: the president’s job. As Berea SGA president, a typical day for Litteral includes tending to mail, attending various meetings, and spending five hours a day in his office. During office hours, Litteral says he spends most of his time listening to student concerns. As I already mentioned, he made it very clear that he doesn’t want to be a part of a student government that isn’t making a “real impact.” For example, SGA at Berea raised over $10,000 in less than 4 days last semester to help a group of students charter a bus to advocate economic justice in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Under Litteral’s leadership, SGA has also organized several stream cleanings. Another item on his platform is to better serve Berea’s international students. Many of these students are often left without labor positions over breaks, leaving them without enough resources to get through the time off. Making a tremendous leap forward, Litteral was able to help raise $4,000 this past winter break for food for these students. He also worked with the labor department to free up an additional 100 hours of work to assist international students.

Student government at these two institutions is most certainly making a difference, both in their individual campuses, as well as the communities that surround them. Keep in mind that these students also go to class full time while taking on these large responsibilities. I believe without student government, the little voices on campus might otherwise go unheard.

March 27, 2012
DESTINED FOR GREATNESS — BEREA COLLEGE BLACK MUSIC ENSEMBLE

The Berea College Black Music Ensemble is dedicated to singing praise music unto God in African American tradition. I attended the BME spring concert on Sunday, March 25. The concert took place in Berea Baptist’s sanctuary, and it was packed. After attending, I think the title, “Destined for Greatness,” fit it perfectly. The concert lasted for around two and a half hours and was a blessing from start to finish.

After an opening prayer, the concert began with a traditional Zulu song that got the crowd ready to worship. The song was titled “Lilizella.” The lyrics are “O lilizela, kwashay umoya, kwangena thina bo, kwashay umoya,” meaning “When we come, we bring the Spirit with us.” The choir stood all around the audience to sing this, creating a true surround sound effect. As the song came to an end, the ensemble took their places on stage. After a welcome from the BME student president, the lady I believe is making a difference in her student’s lives came on stage.

Dr. Kathy Bullock, director of BME, is a special woman on Berea’s campus. It didn’t take long to figure that out. She directed the choir with such passion that you could feel it the moment she walked on stage. You can tell she cares about each and every one of her students. The presentation for graduating seniors was an emotional time for her. Dr. Bullock could barely get through each student’s name without tearing up. She had a story for each senior, including a special friend of mine, Kelly Bonta.

What sets “Momma” Bonta apart from the rest of the BME, is that she is an EKU student. Bonta sought out the Black Music Ensemble and they took her in with open arms, allowing her to sing with them this semester. Bonta will graduate from EKU this semester, after working towards a degree in business and technology for eight years.

This may have been my first time seeing the Berea College Black Music Ensemble, but it certainly won’t be my last. The ensemble’s mission is to inspire and encourage others by being a window to God, and they accomplished it well. After seeing Dr. Bullock perform with the BME, it spawned the same question I have been asking myself throughout the semester, “How does Berea College do it?”

March 31, 2012
CAREER DEVELOPMENT — CHOOSING THE RIGHT CAREER FOR YOURSELF

Studies show 80 percent of students enter college admitting they’re not sure what they want to major in, even if they’ve already declared a major. 50 percent of college students change their major at least once during their college career. It’s ok to come into college without a clear career goal in mind. I know I didn’t. I changed my major four times before finally deciding on one near the end of my sophomore year. What helped me figure out what I truly wanted to do was the career services office on campus. EKU and Berea College both offer similar services to students who are having difficulty finding that one special major that suits them. However, career development isn’t all about finding the right major.

You may be asking yourself, what does a career development office do? There are several services offered at both EKU and Berea’s offices. Both offer career advice to students. This typically starts with guiding students to a major that suits them by learning about their interests, personality traits, and skills. Mock interviews, resume building, and cover letter writing workshops are also available to prepare students for the workforce. Of course, the demographics of students at Berea and Eastern are quite different, so there are specific services offered in each of the different offices.

Berea’s career development office is quite small compared to EKU’s, much like the student population. The staff consists of Director James Atkinson and three other workers in the office. Atkinson is the only counselor, but the program has bigger plans for the future. The office plans to grow with the launch of the Center for Transformative Learning. Atkinson says they hope to create an atmosphere similar to EKU’s Noel Studio for Academic Creativity. Currently, Berea’s career development hosts events on campus that other institutions would also have, such as etiquette dinners and networking events. The office will also be holding a career and internship fair in the fall. One event unique to Berea is the Cornell Weekend. During this time, MBA graduates from Cornell University come to Berea to interview and network with students to help prepare them for life after graduation. The demographic of students Berea serves allows them to offer limited funding for students’ travel expenses to job interviews, grad school interviews, and professional attire.

The team at EKU’s career services office is top notch. The office hosts networking events and job fairs, along with some events unique to the campus. One of these events is Senior Step Day. This event is a crash course for seniors to prepare them for the post-graduation job hunt. EKU career services also offers a half-semester course designed to help undecided students find the right major for them. This course is titled “Career Counseling Seminar” and gives students the opportunity to work with a career counselor in a small classroom setting. After taking a series of personality and skill surveys, students are encouraged to explore a list of careers that interest them. I took this course myself and it helped me immensely.

Without career development offices, many college students would find themselves lost and undecided for longer periods of time. I would probably still be searching on my own had I not taken advantage of the services offered on my campus. It’s normal to not be 100 percent sure what you want to do after college. If you’re facing uncertainty, you’re not alone! Take the initiative and seek out a career counselor on your campus.

April 15, 2012
WHAT DOES BEREA COLLEGE MEAN TO YOU? — STUDENT DISCUSSION

Since starting my internship at Berea College, I have had so many wonderful experiences getting to learn about the institution and trying to find out what it is that makes it so special. However, I haven’t spent a large amount of time with the people that make up most of the college’s population: the students. I sat down with a group of Berea College students to ask them a number of questions about their experiences at Berea and to find out why it’s so special to them. Each one of them has a special story of how they came to Berea College and what it has done to change their lives. I wish I had enough space to tell each story individually, because they were all captivating in their own way.

The first thing I wanted to find out was what Berea meant to them. It sounds very general, but I wanted to see what Berea College has done to change their individual lives. Most of the students felt Berea has helped shape them into the people they are today. It’s given them hope for an education they might not have otherwise received. The opportunity to meet people you wouldn’t normally come across in life was another common response. One particular response that stood out to me came from sophomore Marcus Plumlee. He said attending Berea meant having no regrets. Many students attend college for a few years, not knowing what they want to do in life and waste their (or someone else’s) money. He feels that students leave Berea with no regrets. I believe that speaks volumes about a college. Berea College gives students the opportunity to find out who they are and figure out what they want to study without wasting resources. Not a lot of people can say that about their college experience.

I also wanted to find out how the students discovered Berea. One would think a college that offers free tuition to its students would be recognized more often among colleges. Not to say Berea isn’t being recognized throughout the country, I just think it isn’t being recognized enough. Some found Berea through friends, family, or their various travels. One student discovered Berea while travelling to West Virginia for his grandfather’s 90th birthday. Travis Jones, a senior art history/computer science double major, grew up in Mexico. While in West Virginia, he visited several art galleries. He came upon one painting that really stood out to him.  He met the artist, and began an apprenticeship under him. The artist’s daughter was a student at Berea. Travis applied shortly after. With all the unique stories of how each student found out about Berea, I wanted to find out the biggest factors in their decisions to attend.

When asked what their deciding factor in coming to Berea was, every single answer included the words “it’s free” in some form or another. The ability to graduate college debt free isn’t something many people can say. The small classrooms and tightly knit community also drew in several of the students. Some sought out Berea as an opportunity to leave home, while some chose to attend to stay close to home. Oh, and the campus-wide Humans vs. Zombies game is a plus, too.

To wrap up the discussion, I asked one final question: Where do you think you would be had you not been able to attend Berea College? For some students, being in college simply wouldn’t have been an option. Even though a few of the students mentioned they would still be in college, they didn’t feel like they would have grown as much as they have at Berea. “I wouldn’t be the well-rounded person that I am today,” said Jessica Roberge, a junior communication major.

After reflecting back on the discussion, something I think should be noted is that nobody said they regretted their decision to stay at Berea. I’m sure there have been countless numbers of students attending another institutions who often wonder, “what if I had gone somewhere else?” I don’t think anybody I spoke to during the discussion has any doubts that attending Berea was the right decision for their lives. That alone is simply amazing to me.

April 24, 2012
HOW DOES BEREA COLLEGE DO IT? — CONCLUSION

Over the past few months, I have gained experiences I know I couldn’t have had anywhere else. The community at Berea College has broadened my horizons immensely, as cliche as that sounds. The diversity you find yourself immersed in at Berea allows you to become a more globalized thinker, in my opinion. I have had a fantastic time getting to compare the large differences between Berea College and Eastern Kentucky University. It is amazing to me that these two institutions, a mere 15 miles apart from each other, can have such noticeable distinctions. I am honored to have had this wonderful opportunity. My favorite article from this semester would have to be the study abroad article. To find out that Berea College sends such a large percentage of its students abroad each semester was astounding to me. The fact that the college pays for a portion of these trips is even more astounding. All the wonderful things going on at Berea College caused a recurring question in my head the entire semester: How is all of this possible at a non-government subsidized school that doesn’t even charge tuition? After much research and reading, I think I am starting to grasp the concept of Berea College’s financial model.

I was able to visit the Appalachian Center one more time before the end of the year.

For one thing, the endowment fund at Berea College is enormous, especially when compared to other colleges and universities within the area. This endowment fund is currently at around one billion dollars; that’s nothing to shake a stick at. This is all made possible by a mission-driven, conservative stewardship of small and large donations by friends, alumni, foundations, and trusts. The alumni donations are significantly more than those coming in from somewhere like EKU. If I attended a college that offered free tuition, I would be much more likely to donate back after graduation than to donate to one that constantly raises its tuition each year (that’s not to say I won’t donate back to EKU after I graduate). I know you’re probably thinking the people at Berea sit on a huge mountain of money and throw it at whatever they feel like, because it’s an endless supply. That’s what I immediately thought when I found out how much the fund was. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Berea College spends wisely and makes ingenious decisions in how it handles its funds. One example of this wise spending and money handling would be back in 2008, during The Great Recession. Many suffered through this time, but Berea College handled these troubles as best as it could. Some may even argue the college is even stronger today than it was pre-recession.

The endowment is the foundation for funding at Berea College. Without it, none of what it does would exist. What I find fascinating is that Berea doesn’t actually draw funds from its endowment. It spends a modest percentage of the interest gained each year. This is all laid out in its yearly budget. The rest of the interest goes back into the endowment to help it prosper and grow even more. This, combined with donations from its supporters, allows the financial model to work and sustain itself. Of course, this doesn’t cover every single financial aspect. The college also runs various businesses in the area, including Boone Tavern, the world-renowned student crafts, and the farm, to name a few. Again, it would take years for me to completely grasp the concept of how Berea does what it does.

I assure you the college isn’t trying to keep what it does a secret. In order for all of this to work, Berea can only accept a certain amount of students each year. This means many students in Appalachia and around the world aren’t granted admission. I’m sure Berea College wishes more institutions would consider taking a look at what it does to allow others to get the education they want, but can’t afford. I know not every college can afford to give free tuition to all of its students. Running a 17,000 student university is entirely different than a college like Berea. I do think other institutions should take a look at what Berea is doing and see if there is anything they could do similarly.

The “wall of Berea College Presidents” in the Visitors Center.

Again, I don’t claim to know exactly how Berea College accomplishes its mission year after year. Just know that it isn’t a secret and it isn’t magic. However, the campus itself has a magical feel to it. My experiences this semester are ones that I will carry with me throughout my entire life. I have a new-found respect for “that liberal arts college” in my hometown that I previously ignored. I may not attend Berea College, but the community has truly made me feel included and welcomed. I am eternally grateful to those who made this internship possible and to those who have been with me during this ride. Finally, I’d like to say thank you to each and every reader for joining me on my journey this semester. I hope you’ve had as much fun reading about my experiences as I have had writing about them!

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One Response to Glimpsing Difference

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