By SAM MILLIGAN and DESTINY WALKER
Meaningful connections sustain every community, whether it’s a farm, a family, or an institute of higher learning. Horticulturalist and 2018 Berea graduate Sarah Nicely has made countless meaningful connections since she enrolled as a student. She is making even more in her new role as the College Farm’s inaugural High Tunnel Improvement Associate. Through our career transition program—BereaCorps—Sarah continues to contribute to the Berea College community while earning incomparable career experience in the field she adores.
Sarah says her college education would not have been possible—no matter how hard and smart she worked—if Berea College didn’t make such deliberate efforts to meet the distinct needs of students like her with dependent children, like providing family-centered housing at our Eco Village. Living in the Eco Village as a student stabilized Sarah’s financial health enough for her to pay all necessary bills and save for moving out after graduation. It also offered Sarah and her three children more than she had expected to find. In the Eco Village, she instantly belonged to a community of other parents that were always there to lend a hand or an ear.
She says, “Just having other people around who also have children—who know what it’s like—makes me feel like we belong. I keep a tight budget at the house, but I can’t cut childcare. So we all help each other out, whether it’s a babysitter so you can go to a study session, or a parent watching five kids at once on the playground so you can get your house clean, it’s the perfect amount of support.”
Now, as a member of the Berea College staff, Sarah is excited to improve the College Farm’s greenhouses and gardens, while also expanding her resumé. In the near-term, she is automating the greenhouses’ watering systems to improve their efficiency. Her long-term projects include equipping our high tunnel greenhouses with lightweight solar-powered walls that roll open automatically to regulate temperature. Her improvements will increase crop yields, save thousands of gallons of water, and free up labor-hours so Sarah and her student workforce can perform and learn a wider variety of horticulture techniques. This professional development helps Sarah reach her goal of managing her own student-centered farm one day—if not Berea’s.
Crucially, she tells us that these chances to gain such specialized agricultural experience are rare for women all over the country, let alone the region. She said, “To find that kind of job, outside of Berea, is very hard for women. Recent graduates—friends of mine who are female but have names that can be read either way on paper—looking for jobs as farm managers tell me they keep getting hired for jobs but then get turned away once the employer finds out they aren’t male. It’s not every farm, but it’s so many of them. Too many.”
Despite the unwelcoming job market, Sarah Nicely tells us she knows she will find a way to succeed for her and her children. She believes in her abilities, and she knows she won’t be chasing her dreams alone. “Berea had our backs when we needed it most. They gave me a place to learn everything I’ll need on the job and—most of all—the College showed me there are plenty of people out there who care. Unlike a job, that’s something nobody can take away.”