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.”

Impartial love beyond binaries

Hands making a heart sign with rainbow wrist band and rainbow flag in backgroundWhen the Rev. John G. Fee founded Berea College in the 1850s, he was inspired to base his school on what he called “the gospel of impartial love.”  This radical inclusivity meant that all persons seeking education, regardless of means or any social constraints then in effect, were invited.  Black and white students were welcomed, as were women and men.

Providing education regardless of race or gender was radical for its time.  It was Rev. Fee’s calling in the 19th century to do something about this exclusion. In the 21st century, as we mark Pride Month, we know that impartial love extends to more than two races and to a broader view of gender. Identity and difference have become richer and more complex in our society, and it is Berea’s history and calling to be welcoming and inclusive of these differences, just as Rev. Fee once was.

Our gospel of impartial love, which has become the College’s motto and mission, is based on the Bible verse, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26). We have leaned into this mission over the years to create a campus environment that welcomes “all peoples” in a spirit of human kinship. And we have, as a community, expressed this gospel through our eight Great Commitments, which serve as the moral and philosophical framework for all that Berea College does. To very briefly summarize, we are committed to providing a robust liberal arts education, work opportunities, and a supportive environment to excellent, low-income students of any race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, with a focus on students from Appalachia and to environmental sustainability.

We have grown over time in our understandings of what Berea’s Great Commitments really mean.  We like to say that we are both being and becoming. While we are doing our best to live up to our commitments with regard to race and gender equity, we also seek always to refine and extend our understanding.

That certainly applies to welcoming members of the LGBTQPIA+ community. Only in recent decades have we begun to acknowledge gender beyond the binary of man and woman and have instead begun to see gender as a spectrum. This growth in understanding applies to our other commitments as well.  At the time that Berea College was founded, understanding and engagement between Blacks and Whites were the paramount issues of national concern.  Our interracial education commitment initially then focused only on interactions between those two groups, but now it extends to all races. While antiblack racism is still the most pressing interracial concern in our society, we are now also very aware of the mistreatment of other groups on the basis of racial identity.  Racial equity, like gender equity, must extend to all.

Logo for bell hooks centerAs Berea’s own feminist icon bell hooks teaches, our struggles across race and gender differences are interconnected. Learning from her and other feminists of color, we know that diversity of race and gender on Berea’s campus will enrich the educational experience of all. We have much to learn from each other, and that learning cannot happen through exclusion.  We have further come to realize the significance of intersectionality, that persons who find themselves in more than one marginalized identity category often experience exclusion and mistreatment to even greater extent.

Our whole community owns and embraces the Great Commitments.  Students, faculty, staff, and alumni push us today to live up to our stated ideals with regard to race and gender equity. All expect us to mean what we say in our motto and mission when we promise to regard as “of one blood all peoples of the earth,” but we feel a special obligation to the students we serve, many of whom have experienced mistreatment on account of their identity.  For this reason, we established a center on campus this year, to be named the bell hooks center, where we use the insights of feminists of color to marry the College’s commitment to gender equity with its commitment to racial equity in order to provide a safe environment for our students to be their authentic selves. We also recently created gender-inclusive housing within our residence hall structure so that all Berea College students can feel safe and comfortable on campus.

During Pride Month, we proudly recommit ourselves to welcoming all peoples of the earth by applying our Great Commitments beyond all binaries.


Colorful photos of people for Pride Month with the words "Berea Proud"

The Berea Story of Destiny

Destiny poses in her graduation cap and gownEach student at Berea College has what we call his or her “Berea story.” They are stories of overcoming obstacles, accomplishment and ambition, and they represent the fulfillment of our unique mission. I like to tell these stories in May, as yet another graduating class completes their college journey. This year, I want to tell the story of Destiny, whose Berea story will be inspirational to the next generation of Bereans.

Destiny grew up in Honaker, Va., a town with only about 1,200 residents in a county where only about 10 percent of the population has attained a bachelor’s degree. Like many Appalachian counties, the community struggles with isolation, poverty and addiction. When she finished high school, Destiny was encouraged to marry and start a family rather than go to college, but she was destined for a different path. She traveled to Berea instead.

The first in her family to attend and, ultimately, finish college, Destiny’s educational journey was not a smooth one. She lost her brother in 2019 to opioids, the third family member to succumb to the scourge of addiction. That same year, Destiny describes herself as a “hot mess,” struggling with depression and feelings of insecurity that led her to consider leaving college after her sophomore year or transferring to a school closer to home.

She discovered instead a community of support that encouraged her to complete her Berea story. Because of this beloved community, she stayed and overcame, learning to love her unique, genuine and true self. Destiny decided to “show up,” which to her means adopting a growth mindset that promotes self-improvement with the ultimate goal of contributing back to her community.  Berea College’s Entrepreneurship for the Public Good program was a perfect fit for that goal.  Through that program she did an internship at the office of then-Virginia-delegate Tom Pillion, and then returned to Berea for her junior year determined to make the most of her college experience.

And that she did. The next summer, she interned as a black lung paralegal at Wolfe, Williams, and Reynolds in Norton, Va., and when Destiny returned her senior year, she was elected executive president of the Student Government Association. In her role as executive president, she has organized town halls to facilitate communication between students and the administration, and she has advocated for the LGBTQ+ community through organized events that promote equity and pride. In addition, she won the labor award for her work with College fundraisers.

Destiny, though suffering hardship, thrived at Berea College and now plans to take what she has learned back home so she can be part of the solution. The next leg of her journey takes this first-generation college student to the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., just a short drive from her hometown. With plans to advocate for criminal justice reform for drug offenses, the political science major wants to use her law degree to help addicts and families of addicts in court. But her ambition doesn’t end there! Destiny hopes to run for office one day to bring opportunity and change to her community.

Destiny’s story is a living embodiment of the mission of Berea College. By giving access to education and by building a community of support, students with grit and determination can realize their hopes and dreams. Each is living out a unique Berea story, and these stories are why we continue to do the work we do.

Sustainable Construction Builds a Better Future

Deep Green Residence Hall

Deep Green Residence Hall

As Earth Day approaches, it’s a good time to remember that the fight against climate change belongs to all of us. That means we must take actions that reduce greenhouse gases, as individuals and as institutions. One of the ways we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere while using less energy is by changing the way we do construction. Berea College is leading by example through green building practices when we renovate or construct new buildings.


We are already seeing the effects of global climate change. Increases in the earth’s average temperature have led to more wildfires in California, more hurricanes in the Caribbean, and more intense storms in many parts of the country. If the earth’s temperature rises too much, people, especially people with lower incomes, face devastating consequences like food insecurity, water scarcity, flooding, infectious diseases, and extreme heat.

There are many ways to reduce the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and Berea College already puts them into practice through initiatives like sustainable farming and carbon capture through the Berea College Forest. Another way we reduce our “carbon footprint” is by being very careful about how we build, including the materials and methods of building and also the systems we use in completed buildings.

Demonstrating better ways to build is a proud part of Berea College history. In the first half of the 20th century, the College provided instructions for building better yet affordable housing throughout Appalachia. In the 21st century, we are leading the way in green construction, hoping other institutions—as they update their campuses—will follow suit.

Our most well-known effort is our “Deep Green” residence hall, which was completed in 2013. At the time of its construction, Deep Green achieved the highest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating in the world for a residence hall. The brick was 100 percent recycled (made from ground up reject Lenox china, actually); the wood used was procured through mule logging in the Berea College Forest; solar panels provide much of the building’s electricity; low-flow plumbing systems reduce water usage; and special techniques were used to naturally reduce the temperature of the building in summer and increase the temperature in the winter, resulting in less energy used for heating and cooling.

Now approaching a decade in use, Deep Green has averaged 57 percent less energy use intensity (EUI) than typical residence halls in the region. And thanks to systems that increase efficient water usage, residents of Deep Green use 36 percent less water than in a standard dormitory of the same capacity. This means savings in utilities costs, of course, which in the long run, can offset the increased costs of construction and maintenance of enhanced systems.  Over 25 years, we will save nearly $2 million in energy and maintenance system costs..

Using Deep Green as our example to follow, all new buildings and renovations since have strived to achieve high LEED ratings. Anna Smith, Knapp Hall, Dana, and Bingham residence halls all achieved a LEED Gold rating, as did the new Margaret A. Cargill Natural Sciences and Health Building and the Boone Tavern.

Danforth Residence Hall is 32 percent more efficient than the average, and its use results in about 123 metric tons less carbon dioxide

Kettering Hall

Kettering Hall

emission per year than a typical dormitory. Kettering Hall will be even more efficient because it was rotated about 45 degrees to the east, meaning that it gets more warming sunlight in the winter, resulting in lower heating costs. Both used more energy-efficient construction methods and materials than standard construction, with exterior walls that boast better thermal efficiency and windows that reflect more solar heat. Using light-density strategies to reduce the number of fixtures needed to meet the required illumination, both first-time building costs and long-term maintenance costs were reduced.

With global climate change upon us, it is urgent that green building practices be implemented worldwide.  The example of Berea College shows that this can be done in a way that also achieves lower costs in the long run, the sort of win-win that makes every kind of sense.


Who’s the Next Juanita Kreps?

Juanita KrepsAmazon Prime’s television series, “Hunters,” features Berea College alumna Juanita Kreps, who graduated in 1942 and went on to become the first female director of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the first woman to serve as Secretary of Commerce in the Jimmy Carter Administration.

The show is a fantasy, not history, and the character the writers invented for Kreps plays foil to a Nazi who secretly worked his way up to the highest levels of the U.S. government. On the show, she exists in a male-dominated space, speaking her truth to power and not backing down when challenged.

This last part, speaking truth and not backing down, is very much faithful to Juanita’s character, if not the part about dealing with secret Nazis. The actual obstacles in her path, when she graduated in the middle of World War II were in some ways just as challenging, if a little less dramatic.

Juanita’s is an extraordinary story about a woman from the small, coal-mining town of Lynch, Kentucky. On campus she studied economics and served as a teaching assistant for Berea College alumnus and economics professor Rector Hardin ’29.  At Hardin’s urging, she went on to Duke University, where Kreps earned a master’s and doctorate in economics, specializing in labor and wages and gender equity in the workplace.  Later she was to bring that expertise with her as the first economist to serve as Secretary of the Department of Commerce.

Kreps made a career of being the first woman to achieve various honors. In addition to being the first woman on the board of directors of the NYSE and to serve as Commerce Secretary, Kreps was also the first woman to be appointed a James B. Duke Professor, Duke University’s highest academic honor. The next year, she was named Duke’s first female vice president, and in 1987, she was the first woman to win the Director of the Year award for the National Association of Corporate Directors. A Berea College trustee, Kreps also served on the corporate boards of AT&T, Armco, Chrysler, Citicorp, Eastman Kodak, J.C. Penney, and RJR Nabisco.

Making stories like Juanita’s possible is what Berea College has always been about. In the mid 19th century, Berea College was the only southern college dedicated to providing educational opportunity to people regardless of race or gender. We’re still devoted to this cause today, educating ambitious students of all genders every day, so that they can also become “a first” like Juanita.

Do you know the next Juanita Kreps? If so, please tell her that Berea College has a place for her, and that she will have inspiring models to emulate. Please tell the next Juanita Kreps that we have worked very hard for more than 150 years to create a space for her. Our motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” (from Acts 17:26) means we welcome all races and genders.  That she might lack the financial resources other young people enjoy is not obstacle—in fact it is a requirement (!), and whether from a little Kentucky town or an inner city, or anywhere else, again, she will be welcome. Tell her we only care about her character, her mind, her determination and what she has to offer the world.

The life experiences of the real Juanita Kreps are even more compelling than fictional accounts of Nazi hunters. During Women’s History Month, we are very proud to be part of many of those exciting stories.

Remembering Gabriel Burdett

Civil War Refugee School at Camp Nelson

This photo shows Black refugees at the school at Camp Nelson.

The bell at First Christian Church in Berea is known as the Freedmen’s Bell. It first rang at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County during the Civil War to call formerly enslaved Black troops and refugees to church and to school. The Reverend Gabriel Burdett, born a slave, became a soldier in the 114th U.S. Colored Infantry. He was there to hear the bell ring, and within four years, he would be named a trustee of the newly established Berea College.

After the war, Burdett stayed behind at Camp Nelson to continue his missionary work, pastoring the Church of Christ there, and working alongside Howard Fee, son of Berea College founder Rev. John G. Fee, to set up a school for Black refugees called the Ariel Academy. Funded by the Freedmen’s Bureau and supplied with teachers by the American Missionary Association (AMA), the Garrard County native dedicated himself to the cause of education and the betterment of conditions for the newly free.

The first African American trustee of Berea College held this position from 1868 to 1878, when at the age of 49, life presented a new calling. In Tennessee and Kentucky, thousands of frustrated African Americans were moving west to settle in Kansas. From correspondences in the Berea College archives, we know that Burdett, too, had become disenchanted with the slow progress of race relations in his home state and felt African Americans could fare better out west.

“And so I go on as the pillar of cloud moves on,” he wrote to a minister at the AMA, who would sponsor his exodus to Kansas.

One can gather from Kansas newspapers that Rev. Burdett made a name himself there, not only as a preacher but as a politician. He left the Republican Party and joined with a more progressive group that favored women’s suffrage and supported labor movements. In 1888, Kansas prohibitionists nominated Burdett for state auditor. The Dodge City Times wrote that Burdett was “an able speaker, being witty and forcible. After his nomination he was called upon for a speech, and was conducted to the platform by a former slave owner. Such a thing has probably never occurred in any other party convention and probably never will.”

There’s more to Burdett’s story than I have space for. I wanted to tell you at least some of it, not just because it is Black History Month, but because here we have a remarkable person from our area—a pastor, a soldier, a missionary, an educator, a leader—and likely you have never heard of him. Sources online list Burdett as an “associate” of John Fee. But clearly he was more than that—he was a partner working toward the same goals. Yet, even in the annals of Berea College, an institution devoted to interracial community and education, he has not been given the prominence he deserves.

White privilege can be subtle that way. It’s not just who has advantages in society and who does not. It can also be who is left out of our storytelling. We hear the Freedmen’s Bell ring most mornings at 10:00 to commemorate the many Kentucky victims of COVID-19, and it can also remind us that the first interracial college in the South had Black heroes as well as white ones. Remembering Gabriel Burdett is one small way of evening the scales of attention.

Berea College Farm Celebrates 150 Years

Berea College Farm StoreThe Berea College Farm began as a garden and a few dairy cows in 1871. Today, it stretches across 500 acres and includes beef cattle, hogs, poultry, field crops, horticulture crops, and honey bees. All year long, Berea will be celebrating our sesquicentennial—the 150th anniversary—of one of the nation’s oldest continuously operating educational farms.

In the early days, the Farm provided food for boarding houses and work for students. Over time, it became a place to demonstrate the latest farming techniques and a field of learning for students of various majors, but especially agriculture and natural resource students. Today, the Farm continues to be a resource to the region and offers students practical opportunities to apply what they learn in the classroom. This includes the recently established Berea College Farm Store, where our students apply lessons in marketing and value-added food processing.

The Farm’s longevity is special, but it has not come without challenges. Each generation of College farmers have navigated the limitations of the land and the fluctuations of the market. What makes the College Farm unique is that each challenge, and sometimes failure, became an opportunity to learn. Students learned to adapt the Farm to adversity, experiment with new techniques, and in doing so took knowledge with them out into the region.

The Farm’s present and future being driven by students also make it unique and special. In the late 1990s, when students became concernedHogs in mud about industrial-scale farming, the College Farm transitioned to raising certified organic crops. Students also led the transition from feedlot-finishing of cattle to grass finishing and ended the practice of hog confinement. Students, working just 10 to 15 hours per week, ensure our honey bees are pesticide-free.

Our students learn all aspects of Farm operations, from feeding animals and weeding gardens to more complex challenges like analyzing and adjusting crop rotations and testing new ideas with research projects. In that sense, not only is the Farm a learning laboratory for students that instills an uncommon work ethic within them, it also becomes a place to demonstrate new ideas. We take these ideas into the community through partnerships with area organizations such as Madison County Cooperative Extension, the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Most recently, the horticulture operation, managed by Janet Meyer, hosted a virtual field day with the Organic Association of Kentucky. This is in addition to hosting school groups and regional Future Farmers of America chapters—before the pandemic.

Green HouseThe Berea College Farm will continue in its primary role as a learning laboratory where students, staff and faculty test, evaluate and demonstrate a variety of farming methods. It will also maintain its focus on improving and developing sustainable and appropriate agriculture for the region. The recent advent of large-scale greenhouse facilities in our area by AppHarvest represents interesting possibilities for scholarly interactions and collaboration, and we look forward to such opportunities.

This year we will be celebrating 150 years of a truly unique and special farm operation, much of it virtually. Be on the lookout for virtual farm tours and alumni happy hours, as well as special merchandise that will be available through the Farm Store’s online ordering form. May the next 150 years of the Farm be as “fruitful” as the last.