Published originally in the Winter/Spring 2012 issue of Berea College Magazine
By Annie Hammell, ’15
It travels: by spoken word, in photographs, through video, by you and me. A story travels. In today’s high-tech world, many stories travel through the Internet. It was through Facebook that Noah Adams of National Public Radio (NPR) found the Berea College story. His request for stories about people experiencing hardship during difficult economic times for the network’s Hard Times segment was discovered by students on campus. Because Berea’s student body is composed entirely of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Berea students know well the challenges Americans face in this Great Recession. Traveling from his home in Ohio, Noah arrived on campus and found the Berea College story.
The Berea College story is about doing the best you can with what you have. In spite of economic hardship, Berea students have positive attitudes. Students agree, “It’s more like, ‘Hey, we may not have much, but we make it work.’” One of Berea’s goals is to help students “make it work.” Charla Hamilton, ’15, of Pikeville, Kentucky, told Noah, “My dad is disabled. He doesn’t work. My mother, who has a teaching degree, was unable to find a job, and then my parents divorced. I was living with my mother. We had no income coming in at all. Zero.” Yet, Charla says that she would have attended college regardless of her circumstances.
The Berea College story is about thinking outside the box. Appalachian studies major Sam Gleaves, ’14, was also featured in the NPR story relating how he wants to return to his hometown of Wytheville, Virginia, and teach music after college. “I want the youth coming up through my high school and living in the community I grew up in to have an expanded idea of what it means to be young and Appalachian, in particular gay and lesbian youth and youth of color,” Sam told Noah. “I want the youth to feel welcome to embrace their heritage in the fullest way, where they’re not only living as who they are, but they’re speaking as who they are.”
The Berea story is one of broad horizons. Tony Choi, ’12, originally from South Korea, came to Berea and hopes after graduating to call attention to the plight of immigrants. “Especially in these hard times, I feel that people are placing blame on people who look a little different from everyone else. I’ve lived in this country for more than half my life, and I’m still undocumented,” Choi is quoted. “I feel that Berea has empowered me to go back to my own community, which is the immigrant community, and try to find ways I can fit into a helpful role.”
Fifth grade teacher Dana Mohn from Compton, California, was inspired after hearing about Berea. She explained that each classroom at her school chooses a college to learn more about and “adopt.” Dana was struggling to pick a college until she heard the Berea story on the radio. “I think my students and Berea are made for each other,” she says. “Most of them think that Compton is everything, it’s life, but I want them to step outside this small circle.”
Initially, Ms. Mohn was attracted to Berea because of this. “I teach in an urban environment and I think that Berea can help broaden my students’ horizons,” says Mohn. As a result of “adopting” Berea, the fifth graders will learn about a small college in a small town that educates students representing every ethnic group, from around the U.S. and over 50 foreign countries. Not only does Berea provide courses to help teach and encourage understanding of human differences, it also offers the financial and administrative support that students need to study abroad and experience the diversity of the world firsthand.
The Berea story is one of values. Berea strives to teach students enduring lessons about the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality, and peace with justice. Kurstin Jones, ’12, told Noah in her interview, “I’m a person of color. We have been poor ever since we got here. Involuntarily.” Berea teaches students how to overcome. Berea’s environment frees students to be active learners, workers and servers as members of the academic community and as citizens of the world. The realization that everything happens for a reason can be empowering. Good things almost always come out of bad situations.
Everyone has struggles, but that doesn’t mean the challenges are defining. What defines us is how we deal with the hard times. “I was asked to be an interviewee [for the NPR segment],” Charla says, “but I hesitated at first because I didn’t feel like my story was as important as someone else’s.” At Berea, however, each person’s story is important and each person’s story is different. Because of this, Charla decided to be part of the story.
The Berea College story demonstrates that hope is borne through Hard Times.