Published Originally in the Winter/Spring 2012 Issue of Berea College Magazine
By Erica Cook, ’13
“The students are the best thing about teaching at Berea College,” says Linda Strong-Leek, Ph.D., Berea College professor and administrator. “I love seeing changes, those light bulb moments when a student gets it.”
Strong-Leek is the program coordinator of African and African American studies at Berea College, a professor of Women’s Studies, English and General Studies, and the chairman of Division VI in Berea’s new academic organization. She has been teaching at the College for nine years and has grown to admire Berea’s unique mission. Berea College stands apart from most colleges in Kentucky and around the world for its many distinctive policies, including its practice of charging no tuition, its mandatory labor program and its historical dedication to both racial equality and Appalachian prosperity. “I see myself in Berea College students,” Strong-Leek explains. “I am a first-generation college student who grew up in poverty. I enjoy teaching at Berea because the students here do not have strong sense of privilege.”
Strong-Leek’s journey to Berea was rather unorthodox. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at North Carolina Central University and earned her Ph.D. at Michigan State University. She first heard about Berea while studying in Zimbabwe as a Fulbright Scholar. There, she met Berea College professor and current Director of Women’s and Gender Studies, Dr. Peggy Rivage-Seul. Strong-Leek and Rivage-Seul, both Fulbright scholars, had children around the same age. They became close friends and stayed in touch over the years. Rivage-Seul had advised Strong-Leek to apply as a faculty member at Berea College and a few years later, Strong-Leek did. After her interview on campus, she returned home where a message was waiting, offering her a faculty position at Berea College.
Strong-Leek has a steadfast passion for teaching subjects that greatly inspire her, such as studies in “Women of Diaspora,” “African and African Americans” and “Caribbean Women.” She is currently writing a book on Caribbean women writers and their representations of an ancient African river spirit found in cultures throughout the Caribbean.
Professor Strong-Leek relates to women who have experienced adversity in their lives and are able to overcome incessant struggles to prove their strength and determination. “I grew up in a family of really strong women. My aunt, who raised me, was really adamant about self-sufficiency. She made me think about what it meant to be a woman.”
When asked where she finds her inspiration to teach she said, “My senior high school teacher, Mrs. Hunley, was amazing. She made us learn. I can still remember lines from the great books.” Then, smiling, Strong-Leek recited lines from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “During the conversations, Mrs. Hunley made the characters come alive and the topics current, and that is what I try to do when I teach literature not just thinking about it as it happened years ago but what it means in our current context. A really great teacher inspires you.”