Seeing Ourselves in Ukraine

Capathian Mountain Landscape in UkraineAmid all the news on Ukraine and the war its people are enduring, have you stopped to consider how much you may have in common with Ukrainians? There are striking similarities between Appalachian people and culture and the people and culture of the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine. According to Christopher Miller, curator for Berea’s Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, the people in that part of Ukraine, like Appalachia, have struggled with stereotyping, out-migration and resource extraction by outsiders. People from the Carpathians produce beautiful crafts that are uncannily similar to those in Appalachia.

On Berea College’s campus we often say we are more alike than we are different. Historically, this has been primarily to promote harmony between races, but it applies in other ways. We have Ukrainian and Russian students enrolled in Berea who must study and work together despite the conflict between their countries. Around the world, people suffer because one side of a dispute or the other (or both) have forgotten their basic kinship with one another. On campus, our motto reminds us that “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26), a concept that seems more relevant than ever in our divided society and world.

I hope we can all remember that concept as we welcome Ukrainian refugees fleeing their home country due to Russia’s invasion. We should consider it an opportunity to test the limits of our love for humanity with the understanding that there is no limit if we truly open our hearts to people who are struggling. We should see ourselves in the people of Ukraine, who fight for liberty and independence, the way Americans once had to.

Alas, the war in Ukraine, while getting most of our attention at the moment, is far from unique as there are a number of other ongoing conflicts that are causing great misery and danger to people who bear little responsibility for the situation. Conflicts in Ethiopia, Myanmar, Haiti, and Pakistan come to mind, and these are all places where some Berea College students call home. Regardless of where they are happening, we need to learn to see ourselves in other people’s struggles.  In so doing we become a more compassionate and just society and, perhaps most importantly, a model for the world. And wouldn’t we want “other peoples of the earth” to have such compassion for us were the situations reversed?

It often seems that there is little we can do as individuals to stop war and oppression in other countries, so we need to focus on what we can change in ourselves and what we can do at home. At Berea College, we will remember and teach our common humanity even as we recognize important differences. Future leaders from all over our country and the rest of the world are learning right now that we are more alike than we are different, that we have more in common than we have differences that divide.

Imagine the power of that lesson if everyone learned it and applied it. It might be naïve to think things could change. People and nations have fought each other for millennia, and there is nearly always on-going conflict in several places, so much so that we are sometimes tempted to turn away, to pretend it isn’t happening. It can, after all, be overwhelming. The invasion of Ukraine has removed that luxury, at least temporarily. The horrible destructiveness of modern weapons, the suffering, death, and displacement of so many people are there for us to see every day on the media. A little boy walks alone across the frontier between two countries; mothers in Poland leave baby strollers with supplies at the train stations for arriving mothers from Ukraine. It is heart breaking!  And there is similar suffering in those other conflicts; the photos and reporting are just not being shared by mainstream media.

Yes, maybe it is naïve, but Ukraine has reminded us that we really have only two choices. We can either accept and apply the truth that “God has made of one blood, all peoples of the earth,” or we will continue to see more people suffering, more cities destroyed, and more enmities created or renewed.


bell hooks and the most precious gift

bell hooks, wearing red, smiles into the cameraThis past December, Berea, and the world, lost a friend and an icon. bell hooks, née Gloria Jean Watkins, spelled her pen name in all lower-case letters because she wanted people to focus on her work, not her person. But it was her work and her person that inspired the Berea College community to establish the bell hooks center and even to name a campus road after her. And that same community prompted bell to establish the bell hooks Institute at Berea College. These named places will remind current and future community members of one of the world’s great minds, a Kentuckian, an international hero of feminism and, for the last 17 years of her life, a Berean.

Born in 1952 in the segregated community of Hopkinsville, bell transcended the limitations society tried to place on her. She studied English at Stanford University, earned her master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. The author of dozens of books ranging in topics from race and gender to poetry and children’s literature, bell’s prolific teaching career stretched across many prestigious schools, including Yale, Oberlin, The City College of New York and, ultimately, Berea College, where she chose to continue her life-long work in social justice.

There are not enough words available in this column to express the impact bell hooks had on society, both globally and locally. Her feminist refrain—feminism is for everyone!—was and is so profoundly Berean in its inclusiveness. She welcomed me, too, as a fellow feminist, and we became friends, but she was not shy to point out when my thinking needed correction. It was always an honor to have her expand my horizons because she was so smart and so fierce.

bell had many friends and they all, like me, honored and treasured their relationships with her. Her tent was so very welcoming, capacious and full of learning opportunities. She read at least a book every day and always eagerly shared what she had learned. We will miss bell so much and will always be proud that she chose to associate herself with us and that she allowed us to put her name on the center where we celebrate all gender identities, seeing their inclusion as fundamental to the welcoming mission and identity of Berea College.bell hooks Institute

Her work, her life and her presence spoke to five of Berea’s eight Great Commitments: our commitments to the liberating potential of a liberal arts education, to interracial education, to gender equality, to sustainability and to Appalachia. That close alignment is no surprise because another conviction of bell’s that made her such a true Berean was that love, the impartial love celebrated as well by Berea’s founders, was the answer to most of what is wrong with our culture.

In her classic book, “All about Love: New Visions,” she wrote about the openness of a generous heart: “This is the most precious gift true love offers—the experience of knowing we always belong.”

That experience—belonging—is denied so many in our society based on superficial differences like race, gender and class, but bell admonished us to be better, to see in each person potential and worth. We can honor bell’s legacy by opening our tents and our hearts in a way that makes that most precious gift less rare.  Even as that gift is bestowed more frequently, it will still be so very precious.

Black history is essential to Kentucky’s history

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

Carter G. Woodson

Did you know that the Father of Black History was a Berea College graduate? Carter G. Woodson earned his degree in 1903 and went on to become the second African American (after W. E. B. Du Bois) to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University.  Woodson later joined the faculty of Howard University, where he founded the discipline of African American Studies.  In 1926, Woodson announced the observance of Negro History Week, choosing February because it was the birth month of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.  Schools across the country responded with enthusiasm, so that the commemoration was sustained on an annual basis and has subsequently evolved into Black History Month!

Earlier this month, the Richmond Register ran an article about Monk Estill, one of the first enslaved African Americans in Kentucky, who eventually received his freedom because of his heroic contributions to the defense of Fort Boonesborough.  Woodson and Estill and many other Black leaders contributed importantly to Kentucky’s history, but few are aware of their contributions. Including their stories in the Commonwealth’s classrooms would tell a more complete history of Kentucky.

To remedy omissions of Black History from education in our state, Berea College is entering into an association with Kentucky History Resources LLC, Kentucky State University, and the Muhammad Ali Center. This Association for Teaching Black History in Kentucky will gather and organize the social, historical and cultural contributions of Black Kentuckians, making these resources available through the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education, on Berea College’s campus.

A more inclusive history of our state includes both positive and negative elements. Yes, Black history in Kentucky is about slavery, the Civil War and segregation, but it also includes the triumphs and important contributions of Black Kentuckians like Estill and Woodson, Black women leaders like Georgia Davis Powers and Mae Street Kidd, both of whom were key Kentucky legislators during and after the Civil Rights movement,  and the important efforts in support of racial equality and justice of white leaders born in Kentucky like Abraham Lincoln, Justice John Marshall Harlan and Rev. John G. Fee, founder of Berea College.  The Black civil rights struggle in Kentucky and across the nation has inspired and guided many others seeking equality, including women, the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities.

The Association for Teaching Black History in Kentucky will partner with educators to develop scholarly reviewed, age-appropriate materials that teach the experiences of all Kentuckians thus adding to our shared understanding of a resource we hold in common, the history of our Commonwealth. The association aims to equip teachers at the primary, secondary and higher-education levels with essential original sources, carefully designed lesson plans, and other tools  to present a more complete, even-handed and inclusive history of Kentucky.

This is necessary so that students may learn, grow and face current issues in their appropriate historical context. Some of those lessons will be inspiring, and others, indeed, may be uncomfortable, but all are vital to educating citizens who will seek a just society and avoid history’s mistakes. Such lessons will prove to be unifying and constructive rather than “divisive.”  They will benefit students of all races by sharing important, untold histories, thus contributing to a more complete, accurate, and fact-based understanding of our Commonwealth and nation.

As the South’s first interracial college, Berea has always been at the forefront of social justice and interracial education, and our participation in this effort is just the latest iteration of our historic commitment to educating “all peoples of the earth.” In doing so, we honor Woodson’s legacy, who emphasized that Black history was for everybody.

New Year, Same Inclusive Mission

Multi-racial hands with the words A chance to change the world written on the knucklesThe ardent abolitionists and radical reformers who founded Berea College were motivated by their Christian faith. The scripture, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” (Acts 17:26) inspired them to create a school open to everyone of good moral character. Though much has changed since 1855, this verse, which has become the Berea College motto, continues to inspire our sense of radical inclusivity.  It was one thing to be an abolitionist in the North, but being one in the South was dangerous, a fact that all early Bereans knew acutely. And yet they prevailed.

Such courage inspires us today. What once was meant to apply only to Blacks and whites and women and men now applies in a much broader sense as the world reveals its diversity. And we hope, as always, to lead by example as we apply the deeper meaning of this scripture in a modern era.

As the nation was on the brink of civil war over the issue of slavery, Berea College founder Reverend John G. Fee preached a “gospel of impartial love” and built a little school and church to promote the idea until it became too dangerous for him and his family—and the families of those who assisted him—to stay in Kentucky. He returned at the end of the war to make his inclusive vision a reality. The first interracial and coeducational college in the South opened its doors to freed people of color from nearby Camp Nelson, and the formerly enslaved studied alongside whites, women alongside men, even though the society at the time may have found this unfathomable.March in Alabama 1965 with marchers holding a sign reading God hath made of one blood all nations of men

We tell that story as often as we can to illustrate our modern motivation, which is to continue to be radically inclusive as a College. Inclusivity remains, as it was in the beginning, our institution’s spiritual imperative. We haven’t always been perfect at it—in fact there are long stretches of time in our history where Berea College didn’t live up to its inclusive roots. But it has always been in our spiritual DNA, and here we are today with renewed vigor to realize those ideals. Realizing them demands we mean it when we say we include everybody, even when it doesn’t please everyone.

What does it mean for us today to continue to hold to our inclusive ideals? Well, it’s challenging in two ways. First, we hope, is that inclusivity challenges widely held prejudices and reminds our fellow citizens that God really has made of one blood ALL peoples of the earth. Going one step further this draws attention to systems of oppression, highlighting our goal of educating citizens to recognize and oppose the exclusive systems that adversely affect low-income families, persons of color, religious minorities or members of the LGBTQPIA+ community. But in another sense, it might be challenging to us as an institution to espouse views unpopular to some because Berea College depends on the support of many friends and alumni to continue its mission of educating students who cannot afford tuition.

International Berea students pose with their respective countries' flagsShould we worry that these inclusive ideals might alienate some supporters?  In fact, experience shows that friends and supporters are reassured by considering the Berea experience, precisely because of its inclusivity.  Here a conservative Christian will encounter a student raised in another of the great faiths and both will benefit by the engagement that can only happen because both are welcome.  Here the person who prefers a simple view of the gender binary will encounter a person of nonconforming gender identity, and both will come to a deeper realization of just how mysterious is human sexuality.  Here the politically conservative person will encounter someone on the left, and they will come to understand that the other is not in fact a demon, but a thoughtful and patriotic fellow American.  All come to appreciate inclusivity and the institution that welcomed them in all of their diversity.

That’s why our alumni so value their Berea College experience and why our thoughtful donors from across Kentucky and throughout the country continue to support us regardless of their identities and their particular perspectives on various issues. They have come to understand that engaging with one another in a spirit of inclusivity is a unique and transformative way to learn, a model we hope will have influence beyond Berea College.

Life is a Journey

For the first time in two years, Berea College students gathered with friends and family in person to celebrate their commencement. The word “commencement” is appropriate. It means beginning. For these 80 students, as their undergraduate experience ends, their new lives begin. They will find, like many before them, that it is the commencement of a journey that may or may not go as planned. Life will take them in different directions, and at every unexpected turn will be a lesson. Mortar board reading "Psyched for a new adventure"

We were blissfully ignorant of the turn life was about to take two years ago, the last time we met together. We responded to the pandemic by exercising our technological muscles to continue the Berea College mission—the Berea College journey. That included moving classes and work online, and for three consecutive graduating classes, their ceremonies commenced digitally thanks to the efforts of many people across several departments to make virtual graduation ceremonies a possibility. We learned we are more nimble than we imagined.

Robert Yahng

Robert Yahng speaks at Berea College’s 2021 Mid-year Commencement.

This December, thanks to available vaccinations, the road brought us all back together again. Berea College alumnus and retired chair of the Berea College Board of Trustees Robert T. Yahng addressed the graduates, explaining to them that life is, indeed, a journey, and the step they were taking today was but one of many more to come. Yahng spoke of his own road to success, which at one time in his life included subsisting on oatmeal and soup to get by. He emphasized to the graduates the value of being intentional about their journey, about having a plan, what you wanted to accomplish in your first five years, and then what after that.

But Yahng also noted they would face the unexpected, that the road might get bumpy at times, or that things may not work out exactly as they’d hoped, and that there would be unanticipated forks in the road, leading to new opportunities they could not have imagined. The key is not stopping when life throws you an unexpected detour. One must continue on to one’s destiny.

Life is certainly a journey and for nearly all of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an unexpected detour.  We are thankful for many blessings that have enabled so many of us to continue our journey despite that detour, and deeply sad for all our friends, family and fellow citizens for whom it was the end of the journey. We will carry them in our hearts as we continue, ever onward, to adapt and move forward.

Another surprise and a reason for sadness were the terrible storms that occurred in the western part of our state last weekend, just the day before our commencement celebration.  With relief we confirmed that none of our graduates or their families were impacted, yet we proceeded with sadness for the many Kentuckians who had lost their lives or homes.

Last Saturday we celebrated each new Berea College graduate as they began their respective journeys into the unknown. For though we may not know what lies ahead for them, and perhaps they do not either, we are confident that their education has equipped them to handle the twists and turns that come their way. We celebrated, too, the idea that though they may not end up where they expect, their destinations will bring them unique wisdoms, insights, skills and talents they would not have acquired otherwise. In celebrating the beginning of their journey, we also celebrated their unknown destinies and destinations.

Two women posing in their caps and gowns and with their diplomas Two men posing in their caps and gowns and laughing

Global climate change requires bold action

Sign at the Matilda Hamilton Fee Hydroelectric StationThe increasing impacts from global climate change compel all of us to do everything possible to reduce carbon emissions. With the recent completion of a hydroelectric generating station on the Kentucky River near Ravenna in Estill County, Berea College is leading by example.

The Matilda Hamilton Fee Hydroelectric Station, named for the partner and spouse of Berea College founder Reverend John G. Fee, is the first new hydropower facility built in Kentucky in 94 years. It is also the first of its kind to use a combination of modern technology and existing infrastructure. The result is that about half of Berea College’s electric power usage will be offset by this source of clean, renewable energy. Our plans to build a second hydroelectric station on the river will compensate for the other half of our electric usage.  And, if we count in the carbon captured by the Berea College Forest, our carbon footprint will actually be negative in the future.  (Technically, we sell the carbon credits created by the Forest in the California carbon credit market, so that absorption doesn’t really count against our footprint; it is offsetting someone else’s.)

The technical details of our hydropower demonstration project are dazzling. Our engineering partners, Appalachian Hydro Associates (AHA), engineered the re-use of an existing, century-old lock and dam structure to house the power plant, providing a significant cost reduction. The lock at Dam 12 had been out of use and welded shut since the 1990s, and until now, the water flowing over the dam represented wasted energy. AHA “shoehorned” five 528 kW submersible turbine generators into the abandoned lock. Submersible generators are necessary for this application because they are unaffected by flooding, a frequent reality on our state’s fickle river.The dam at Lock 12

This plant is also the first in the country to use variable speed drives, a technology borrowed from the wind power industry that dramatically increases efficiency.  It even makes use of NASA-developed technology to prevent rust, meaning that the lifespan of the turbines is 50 years, twice that of wind turbines and solar farms.

The power generated by this facility is being sold to Jackson Energy Cooperative at a discounted rate, so its customers ultimately benefit as well.  The $11 million construction cost of this project was partially offset by various available tax credits resulting in an acceptable rate of return for the College even after the discount. So, this project is a win-win-win: it’s a great long-term investment for us, but it’s also beneficial for the community and it’s the right thing to do for the climate of our planet.

Berea College, like all schools, has a mission, and ours mission has eight parts. We call this mission the Great Commitments, among them affordable and accessible education, serving Appalachia and environmental sustainability. Our Tuition Promise Scholarship covers the cost of tuition for every student, which means low-income Appalachian students can earn a high-quality education they otherwise would not be able to afford. Our commitment to sustainability means these students can also learn the latest in environmentally friendly practices, whether it be on the College farm, in the forest or, as of now, along the Kentucky River, where clean hydropower is being generated. They can even live in the world’s “greenest” residence hall, right on campus.

Berea College President Lyle Roelofs

Berea College President Lyle Roelofs

Our students learn the science of sustainability and the importance of household-level activities like recycling or purchasing an electric vehicle. As we look toward a better, cleaner future, these same students will understand, as well, the opportunities at the institutional level.  Through our demonstration project, we aim to show them and all other Kentuckians that environmentally sustainable projects are not only financially feasible and attractive, but also the right thing to do at this point in time.

We must all take action against global climate change, and sooner rather than later. Our collective future and economic success depends on it.  The Matilda Hamilton Fee Hydroelectric Station is one example of how we can work together to address these challenges.


Fostering a Sense of Belonging

Graduating seniors taking a photoIn August, I began telling you why Berea College is so successful at graduating first-generation and low-income students. While, nationally, only 21 percent of these students finish their degrees within six years, their success rate at Berea College is three times as high. The first reason was that our no-tuition model and other measures help them financially. Another reason, which I will discuss here, has to do with “fit” or belonging.

For students of any economic status to thrive in college, their basic needs must be met. Some needs are financial, and other needs are physical, emotional, mental and social. One of those basic needs is to fit in. Decades of research has shown that the more students feels they belong in a group, the more successful they will be.

Let’s revisit Max and Makayla, who attend the same college. You already know that Makayla is a first-generation and low-income student, which means she faces pressures and challenges that Max does not. Now imagine Makayla is the only student of color in her class. In addition to having to balance work and school, she also has to navigate a sense of being different from the other students in other ways and having different, often negative, experiences.

Difference can take many forms. For our hypothetical situation, Makayla could be lesbian when all or most of the others are straight. Or she might be a Muslim while the others are Christians. So not only is she in a different financial boat than the others, she also has a different sense of her own identity. We call this intersectionality—where different aspects of a person’s identity cross. While the sense of difference could be many things, the result is the same. Makayla often feels out of place and alone, and because of that she feels less supported, is less likely to thrive, and is more likely to drop out.4 students posing on campus outside

At Berea College, we have an advantage because students come from similar financial backgrounds. We are also very intentional in helping students like Makayla feel they are important members of our community. We do this in many ways, beginning in their first year. One way is by building diverse classrooms where many different identities are present, both among the student body and the faculty, so students see others like themselves. Another way is to create special places on campus where our students can go to feel included, like the Black Cultural Center, the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, the bell hooks center, and the Espacio Cultural de Latinx—a gathering place for our Latinx students. When we learned that males drop out at a higher rate than females, we launched our Male Initiative to help our African American, Appalachian, and Latinx male students build vital connections with each other and become accountable to one another as members of a cohort.

Other important factors in belonging are shared experiences and peer mentoring. Every student at Berea works a campus job and attends Convocation, so they share those experiences in common. We also have special days like Mountain Day and Labor Day that allow students to connect with each other and our staff around the Berea experience. In addition, Berea students mentor other students, whether as a teaching assistant, resident assistant or student chaplain.  We do more than I can list here, but, in short, we demonstrate to our students that this place was built for them.

Students pose on Mountain DayAt Berea, we’ve known for a long time that fitting in, belonging, and feeling like you matter are important to a student’s success. This stretches back to our roots as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, and our motto—God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth—reflects our commitment to ensuring every Berea student feels they fit in here. Together with our no-tuition model, those two ingredients have been our recipe for success.

Twenty years later, a reflection on 9/11

View of the New York City skyline with the Statue of Liberty in front of light beams where the World Trade Center towers used to standTwenty years ago, our nation faced a defining and harrowing moment. Past generations had moments like it in Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but for us the horror was live on television. It was an event that etched traumatic images into the national psyche as each of us marked where we were and what we were doing that fateful Tuesday morning when the World Trade Center towers were taken down by an unprecedented act of terrorism. It sparked grief and fear. It sparked a renewed sense of patriotism. And it sparked war.

I, like everybody old enough, remember what I was doing that morning. I was in a meeting at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where I served as associate provost before coming to Berea, when the news reached us. We ceased our business, turned on the television and spent the rest of the morning watching in horror as people trapped on the upper floors of the north tower had no option but to jump. We tried frantically to reach a colleague who was in New York with a morning appointment in that very building with a trustee, Howard Lutnick, CEO of the financial company Cantor Fitzgerald headquartered on the top five floors of the north tower. Luckily, neither was in the building, but Lutnick’s brother was, along with most of his employees. They all perished. My first reaction, like those of many Americans, was that we had been attacked, and we needed to fight back.

Now that the U.S. has exited Afghanistan 20 years later, we are still feeling the consequences of that morning. Though fighting back seemed clear then, it’s clear now that we needed to do more than that. We, as a nation forced onto the defensive by a shocking attack, turned away from the approach of encouraging democratic values and human rights through aid to other countries and diplomacy and instead initiated military confrontations with the cultural groups that had attacked us. But repression can be a dangerous strategy, one that does not necessarily serve the causes of world peace and public safety.

The war in Afghanistan, initiated to eliminate a safe haven for terrorists, was successful in driving out Al-Qaeda, but the longer-term effort to impose a new sort of society and government there proved to be difficult and costly. The war in Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein on the premise that he would provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. No such weapons were ever found, and now Iraq is an unstable country where ISIS,  a new threat to world peace and human rights, emerged and has now spread to other countries, notably Afghanistan as well.

I do not pretend to know the answer to the dilemmas in the Middle East, but 20 years of war does not seem to have been the solution. It’s hard to argue that we are living in a safer world. That may be because repression of other cultures and ideologies breeds more terrorism, and we find ourselves having to respond to new threats.

Whole groups of people, millions strong in some cases, have been left behind as the rest of the world progresses toward greater prosperity and a better quality of life. Some people within those groups will inevitably identify the people and countries that are leaving them behind as enemies and turn to violence. We can confront threats and respond to attacks, but until we find a way to support the advance of all people who share the planet, more terror groups will continue to emerge. Maybe now it is time to shift our nation’s approach and priorities back to addressing root causes of disaffection.American flag with candles burning in front

It is worth noting that this direction has been chosen before by our country with considerable success.  Following World War II, rather than continuing to treat our adversaries in Europe and Asia as enemies, we engaged in a massive restoration program called the Marshall Plan.  Those former adversaries are now strong democracies and reliable allies of the United States.

Still, we should not necessarily expect that degree of success, and we should be ready to accept a lengthy commitment. We invested 20 years, trillions of dollars and the well-being and lives of many brave Americans in trying to impose a different society in Afghanistan. In order to move the needle, we may need to spend the next 20 years applying economic pressure and forging multinational partnerships that reward good behavior and punish actions contrary to democratic values and human rights.  It’s time for a new approach.

Keys for Success in Serving Low-income Students

Dr. Lyle Roelofs headshotDid you know that four out of five low-income students who are the first in their family to go to college never actually finish their degree?

The obvious question: Why? The answer is clear: It’s harder for low-income students to thrive in college because they face pressures, challenges, and obligations that students from families with greater means often do not.  In this column I’ll discuss some of the financial aspects of this question and in a future column, I will return to the subject to discuss ‘fit.’

Let me give you two hypothetical examples. Max is a good student with a good work ethic. His parents make good money and have given Max a stable home. That means Max has been able to focus completely on his own interests. In college, he studies hard without interruption, and when he’s finished studying, he is heavily involved in campus life, which gives Max a sense of belonging.

Makayla is just as studious and driven as Max, but she lost her father in her teens. She had to work to help support the family. She wants to go to college, but feels guilty about leaving home because her mother needs help. Having made the difficult decision to attend, Makayla finds it tough going.  She has to work nearly full time to support herself and so doesn’t have enough time to study and do her best. Extracurriculars are a luxury, and it seems like everyone has more of everything than she does. Some semesters, when it gets to be too much, Makayla decides to drop to part time.

And then there is the issue of family finances—for low income students the annual cost of college is more than 150 percent of their family’s income, compared to just 14 percent for families like Max’s.  In that circumstance Makayla and her mother will likely be cautious about borrowing to cover part of the costs, should that be necessary, even though it is likely a good investment to do so.

Taking all of that into account, simply admitting students like Makayla is not enough. Low-income students need more support to be successful.

Berea College welcome bags for first-year students on move-in day

Thanks to alumni and campus volunteers, every first-year student receives a welcome bag on Move-In Day.

At Berea College, we only admit low-income students of high promise, the majority of whom are the first in their families to attend. Our graduation rate, though, is around 67 percent, similar to other private, nonprofit schools.

How are we different? First, we do not charge tuition of any students, meaning that the concerns around financing their education are much reduced.  Many of our students do not need to borrow at all to attend four years of college, and those who do borrow much less than the national average.  We also hire each student to work 10-12 hours on campus and pay them roughly $2,500 for that work each year, which helps them buy personal items and even help with housing and meals.

Second, we go to great lengths to support our students in ways similar to the support received by more affluent students. We don’t offer just a doorway to enter, but bridges—a bridge into college, a bridge through college, and a bridge out into the world beyond.

Let me give you some examples.  Berea offers students a summer “bridge” program of four weeks of learning and living on campus before they start college in August as a way of empowering them for student success. This program is proven to be highly successful for our students.

Parents hug their son at Berea College Ceremony of DedicationTo ensure that students feel supported to successfully bridge through college, one important example is a free dental clinic that tackles some of the disparities our students experience. Another is subsidized study abroad, often a universal option for high-wealth students but much less common for low-wealth students.

And we’ve discovered that our most important work is to help students design and build their bridge out to the world beyond at graduation. We do this by empowering students to dream their internship dream and then providing funding to make that internship possible. We provide monies for professional clothing so their confidence is strengthened. And thanks to the generosity of a funder, we provide every graduate with $500 to relocate to a job or graduate school or to afford a security deposit on a new apartment. There’s more, but this gives the idea.

Berea College can be a model for other schools when it comes to supporting low-income students and helping to enhance their chances of success. Knowing what works is the first step to leveling the playing field for these students, wherever they attend.

Beyond the dimension of finances, the question of ‘fit’ is also very important.  All students, in fact, are much more successful in college when they feel that they belong.  How this works for low-income students will be the subject of a future column.

A More Perfect Union

Photo of the US Constitution reading We the People against an American flag backdropIs it possible to love something that is imperfect? Naturally, it is. We trust that God loves us, despite our flaws. We love our children, even when they behave in ways we dislike. Love is not contingent upon perfection. In fact, when it comes to things we love, we strive to improve them, to move them closer to more perfect, with the understanding we may never reach it.

The same idea applies to the love of one’s country.  Earlier this month we celebrated American Independence Day, and I was reminded that here is another area of American life where polarization has afflicted us.  Some folks seem to feel that if one is aware of and concerned by our country’s imperfections that they are not patriots, while some others are so concerned by those faults that they have become very critical of the USA.  Neither attitude serves a great country well and both of them bother and sadden me.

The words “more perfect” first appear in the Preamble to the United States Constitution. It reads (in the spelling of that time), “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution….”

The Founders seemed to have understood that although a perfect Union might be unobtainable, a more perfect Union was within their reach and was something to be continuously improved upon. The Founders themselves were not perfect. For all their rhetoric on justice, welfare and the blessings of liberty, those blessings of liberty, including even the right to vote (!) did not apply to women at the time and many human beings were enslaved and enjoyed almost no rights at all.

Does acknowledging these facts mean that we love our country less? Some folks feel that paying attention to what is flawed, ugly and unfortunate in the history of our country is disloyal and means one could not love our country. They wonder, especially when it comes to teaching their children, can we be patriots and critical of our history at the same time?

I think we should ask instead: How can we be patriots if we are not taking a good hard look at what’s wrong and seeking to improve our nation? How can we be patriots if we are not dedicated to ensuring justice, the general welfare and the blessings of liberty for all of our citizens? How can our children learn to make this nation better if they are not taught which wrongs are to be righted?

This is the aim of Critical Race Theory, which has gotten much media attention recently as state legislatures seek to ban these ideas from the classroom. Critics of the theory say teaching (white) children about systemic racism is teaching them to hate their country. But all countries and societies have flaws, and more importantly, attention to past and present flaws is the only way we can work for improvement.

We apply the same practical reasoning to all of our beloved institutions and even our own homes. If there is a crack in the foundation of your house, do you love it less or do you seek to fix it? Naturally, you will repair it, not because you hate the place, but because you love it. Systemic racism is a crack in our nation’s foundation, and true patriotism is demonstrated by advocating for repairs, not in ignoring the crack and insisting that everything is fine.

The United States has never been and never will be a perfect Union; no country is or will ever be. But because we love it, we must continue the work of the Founders in pushing it to be ever more perfect. That more perfect Union begins with acknowledging what is still wrong and who among us is not enjoying justice and the blessings of liberty. I proudly fly Old Glory on July 4 signaling my appreciation for the Great American Experiment as it seeks better and better to, in the words of George Washington, “promote human happiness.”