A Brighter Future for Appalachia
To Berea Against All Odds
Berea College’s commitment to educating Appalachian students is as important today as it was in our founding year of 1855, especially for students who have experienced poverty firsthand, like Elizabeth Owens, Class of 2021, from Etowah, Tennessee.
Elizabeth was born to teenage parents who left high school early to try to raise her, even without access to living-wage job opportunities in their small mountain town. From an early age, Elizabeth was shifted between numerous homes until, at age 12, she found stability in the home of her grandmother, who supported their household on a fixed income. Along the way, her elementary school teacher, Jennifer, became her godmother. Jennifer provided loving care both in and outside of school, including advice on Elizabeth’s path to higher education.
“Jennifer wouldn’t stop talking about this wonderful little college called Berea that gives you a job and doesn’t charge tuition,” Elizabeth said. “It sounded too good to be true.”
Like over 60 percent of her Berea College classmates, Elizabeth is a first-generation college student. She is also the first in her family to graduate high school, so Jennifer’s college advice went a long way to helping her feel confident in her decisions. Having struggled to pay off her own student loans on a teacher’s salary, Jennifer knew firsthand how much Berea’s No-Tuition Promise would enable Elizabeth’s dreams.
So the two of them took a campus tour, and Elizabeth decided to apply.
“Even with all the help Berea gives, it was the people who sold me on Berea College. I felt like a number at the other colleges we toured, but at Berea I felt like a whole person.”
At Home among Bereans
Elizabeth’s hard work and academic record got her quickly accepted into Berea. Just as quickly, she declared her major in nursing. She had wanted to be a nurse for as long as she could remember, largely due to spending so much time with her elderly grandparents at their healthcare appointments. Here she witnessed the effects of the chronic—and ongoing—shortage of doctors, nurses, and even dentists serving Appalachia, where rates of teen pregnancy, cancer diagnosis, and infant mortality are far higher than the national averages.
It was during the long hours at these appointments where Elizabeth also grew to admire the medical professionals who treated her grandparents with such thoughtful care, Elizabeth ‘21, from Etowah, Tennessee despite how overworked they were. Though she respected the knowledge and empathy doctors showed when treating her grandparents, she was more drawn to the hands-on nature of nursing care.
“I noticed nurses get to spend a lot more time with the patient,” she said. “That’s why I want to be a nurse, so I can treat the whole person, not just the disease.”
Returning the Favors
Nursing school is especially rigorous at Berea College, where high expectations and even higher levels of support led the program to receive many honors, including being named the top nursing program in Kentucky, and the achievement of 100 percent of nursing graduates passing their nursing boards for seven years in a row. Yet even with all her demanding coursework, Elizabeth wanted to go further in her pursuit of healing. So, through Berea’s one-of-a-kind study abroad program, Elizabeth took a five-week trip to the eastern African nation of Tanzania.
Here she helped deliver babies in urban hospitals and treat AIDS patients in rural clinics. She and her team also brought much-needed supplies to isolated orphanages and spent long shifts in a pediatric burn unit.
“It was really humbling and helped me put all the things I’d been through into perspective. I can’t wait to go back.”
At other colleges, the $8,000 price tag of this experience would have put it far beyond her reach, but Berea’s study abroad program reduced her costs to under $900. And she isn’t alone. Just over 47 percent of Berea College students study abroad. Yes, while less than 2 percent of American college students study abroad, nearly half of all Berea students embrace the chance of a lifetime to bring a global perspective back to their communities, including Appalachia.
Now Elizabeth is a cardiac nurse at a major research hospital back home in Appalachia, where she is also on her way to graduate school to become a nurse practitioner. She is passing on the Berean legacy of healing by bringing her world-class education back to Appalachia to serve Appalachians.
“Without donors, it’d just be me and my dream and major student debt. Because of your generous heart, I can help others heal.”
Among the many gifts you and your loved ones exchange this holiday season, please give to Berea College. Gifts like yours will help more Appalachian students like Elizabeth fulfill the founding dream of their alma mater: a brighter future for Appalachia.