Many alumni, members of the administration, staff, and faculty members already know Roberta Pearl Larew-Allison (‘42). Everyone who has ever spoken to this amazing alumna knows, immediately, how dear Berea is to her.
During nearly every homecoming you can find Roberta, (often alongside a few of her family members), attending events like the Block Party on College Square and at the Agricultural Union Breakfast. You might just be lucky enough to have a chat with her or catch her dancing. But even those who know her well from alumni gatherings may not have any idea about the important work in the field of Agriculture that Roberta did as a student here at Berea and after her graduation. Just this past May, however, Roberta was presented an award, named in her honor, for just that.
On Monday, May 4th at Noon, alumna Roberta Pearl Larew-Allison (‘42) was joined by family, friends, special guests from across campus including President Lyle Roelofs and First Lady Laurie Roelofs, and both faculty and students of the Berea College Agriculture and Natural Resources Program to be honored for her trailblazing work in the field of Agriculture. An award, named in her honor, was presented to Roberta as part of this ceremony. This newly established award is meant to honor female alumnae of Berea’s Agriculture program who have done outstanding work in the field of Agriculture and Natural Resources post-graduation. After an introduction by the Agriculture and Natural Resources program chair, Sarah Hall, Roberta gave a short talk in which she detailed her experiences at Berea.
Roberta was one of the few female students in the 1940s to enroll in agricultural courses. Gardening, she thought, would be a class that would help to better prepare her as a West Virginia University Extension Agent back in her native state. During WWII, it would be expected that any and every Extension Agent would know how to train others in raising victory gardens. As one can imagine, Roberta experienced many obstacles (such as unconscious bias) in the field, even at a progressive institution like Berea. However, she soldiered through her courses and, after, put the knowledge she had learned at Berea to good use through service. Just as planned, Roberta worked as an Extension Agent after graduation. She showed others how to garden, preserve food, and more through demonstrations, programs, and presentations. Once she became a mother, Roberta continued to garden in order to produce nutritious, healthy meals for her children and husband. At times she experimented with container gardening. During other times in her life, she planted traditional garden plots for her family. At another point, she even helped to establish a community garden with neighbors in Washington State. Even today, at 94, Roberta continues to garden.
Today, the gender compositions of the Agricultural program here at Berea demonstrates that times have most certainly changed since Roberta was a student. Now, according to program chair Sarah Hall, approximately half of all Agriculture students and graduates are female. More than half of the labor students working in the program are female, as are fifty percent of Agriculture and Natural Resources program faculty. It is only because of fearless women pioneers, like Roberta, in fields traditionally dominated by men that women students are now empowered to pursue their own goals both in the halls of academia, as well as in their own careers. Such role models have helped to show alumni of all genders what is truly possible. This and future generations of agriculture students, graduates, and workers owe groundbreakers (pun intended) like Roberta more than can ever be repaid. But there is still room within the field for improvement, acceptance, and growth. A plaque to honor Roberta and all future recipients of her award has been placed in the Goldthwait Agricultural Building as a testament to her work and an inspiration to others. In the coming years, the faculty and staff members of the Agriculture and Natural Resources program look forward to awarding other worthy alumna the Roberta Pearl Larew Award and hearing about the strides toward equality that they are making in the region and beyond.