Jamie’s Story
Jamie Oleka

Jamie’s Story

Jamie's Story

Jamie Oleka ’13 refers to herself as “Appalasian,” or a person of Asian descent who grew up in Appalachia. Filipino-American, Jamie hails from West Liberty, Kentucky, a hamlet of less than 3,500 people. Inspired by her mother, a nurse at Appalachian Regional Healthcare Center, Jamie carried with her a passion for helping people.

Majoring in health sciences, Jamie explored this passion through her labor position with the Center for Excellence in Learning through Service (CELTS), where she worked in the Adopt-a-Grandparent Program. The program matches college students with residents of local long-term care centers. Upon graduating, Jamie wanted to continue her good works and joined Teach for America to help low-income students succeed in school.

But before that could come to pass, Jamie tells a story of struggling academically. With the help of mentors, she succeeded nonetheless, and her difficulties transformed into the motivation she needed to help underserved students.

“When I came to Berea, I was drastically unprepared for college. I was almost an upperclassman before I finally figured out how to study on my own. When I told the Teach for America recruiter my story, she said ‘you have to join Teach for America, because your story is a lot like the stories of the students we work with.'”

Teach for America placed Jamie in a South Carolina town about the same size as West Liberty, where she spent two years learning to teach high school science to low-income students. She learned up-close the situations of education inequity that exist in rural communities and realized this was where she wanted to serve for the rest of her career. “The school had a terrible reputation. People would say, ‘Good luck. You probably won’t make it a week.’ They said the students wouldn’t amount to anything.”

But she maintained her faith. Jamie says the students there were about three years behind in terms of mastery of high school sciences. “By the end of my first semester,” she said, “we had an 85 percent passing rate on the biology end-of-course exam. After two years, over 10 students made a 100 percent on it. That was when I realized that students will rise to whatever expectation you have of them. It made me fall in love with teaching. Teachers can make a huge difference on the trajectory of an individual’s life.”

“Berea’s mission was part of the reason I came back to Kentucky, how they want to invest in students from eastern Kentucky so they can go back and help their community and their region.”

Jamie took a job as Manager for Teacher Leadership Development with Teach for America Appalachia to further this same mission. In that position, Jamie worked with first- and second-year teachers to provide professional development and facilitate teacher training in eastern Kentucky classrooms. “It’s like living out Berea College’s mission,” she said. “I’ve always tried to instill in the teachers that they should never tell their students that to be successful you need to leave. Being from eastern Kentucky is not a bad thing.”

Jamie connects her time in South Carolina and eastern Kentucky to her work with the elderly with the Adopt-a-Grandparent Program. The elderly, a population she notes is often neglected, helped her see the humanity in individuals, a lesson that followed her throughout her fledgling career. The South Carolina school housed another neglected population, and in Kentucky there were more like them. Jamie now embarks on a new journey back to the classroom as a teacher, this time in Louisville, where another neglected group of students awaits her.

Jamie believes her low-income background helps her relate to the students she is trying to help. “I share that with my students, so we can have a shared experience of understanding the level of difficulty you have when you grow up in a low-income background, and what the systems and opportunities are that you need to navigate for getting to where you want to be.”

Read more about Jamie Oleka in the Berea College Magazine.