Eastern Kentucky Floods: A Marathon, Not a Sprint

Long after attention from beyond the region dwindles, the people in eastern Kentucky will still need our help. The devastation from flooding is massive, and it will take a long time to recover. For those wanting to help, the most pressing needs in the short term are emergency funds and often hands willing to pitch in. Concerned citizens can donate through a number of organizations, including the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund, the American Red Cross, the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, and Save the Children. For the long term, the impacted people and organizations will need sustained support.

Although the people in the mountains have always lived with flooding, this flood was unlike others, wiping out home after home, building after building, leaving many families with nothing. In an inspiring display, people, institutions, organizations, agencies and resources from throughout the region, the state, and the nation have been mobilized, but this “clean up” is just the first stage.  Soon, many people will be making hard decisions about how to rebuild, whether to stay or go, and what their communities are going to look like in the months and years ahead.

For many of us, the question isn’t whether to help but how.

For those who have it in their hearts to volunteer, there is a strong network of nonprofits in Appalachian Kentucky that know these communities and also know how and where to help. Rather than just showing up in these communities, volunteers should connect with nonprofits already working in them, including Breathitt County Disaster Relief, Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, the Eastern Kentucky Flood Information Center (for Breathitt, Knott, Letcher, and Perry counties), the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky and the Christian Appalachian Project, among others. Aid is needed in Leslie, Magoffin, Martin, Owsley and Whitley counties as well. Volunteers should come prepared with their own supplies, like gloves and shovels, and should be prepared to not spend the night.

Berea College has deep and abiding connections in the affected counties. A number of Berea students and their families were impacted. We offered those students the opportunity to return early to campus. To their credit, all chose to stay and help their families and neighbors with the recovery process, but now that classes are underway, they are back. Several organizations with which Berea has close connections have also been very seriously impacted, notably Appalshop in Whitesburg, Hindman Settlement School and the Appalachian Artisan Center. Many Bereans have already made their way to these organizations and pitched in to the work of recovery, and we have offered extra vacation days to employees wanting to volunteer. We will also be looking for ways to support these organizations financially. Meanwhile, on campus, the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, the Center for Excellence in Learning through Service (CELTS) and the Willis D. Weatherford, Jr. Campus Christian Center will be working to organize the efforts of students who would like to provide volunteer service. In addition, we have more than 80 staff members in our Partners for Education unit living and working in Appalachian Kentucky. Many of those employees were directly impacted, and four of these families lost everything. We have set up a special donation fund so that College employees may support these families.

Recovery in eastern Kentucky will be a marathon, not a sprint. In some places, the destruction is nearly total. Understanding that resources will be needed for an extended period of time, the College will be making substantial funds available through the Mountain Association, the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, and directly through local governments in the affected counties. These efforts will support families, schools and businesses. The funding, which will total more than $1 million overall, will be drawn from the College’s reserve funds.

Berea College’s mission calls us to recognize the dignity of all people and also to “engage Appalachian communities, families, and students in partnership for mutual learning, growth, and service.” We therefore trust that the spirit of Appalachian generosity would be there for us if the situation were reversed. Let’s all pitch in where we can.

We Cannot Wait for Congress to Fight Climate Change

Dr. Lyle Roelofs headshotIn light of a recent Supreme Court decision, it’s up to us, on an individual and organizational level, to combat global climate change.

In a 6-3 decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Supreme Court hamstrung the federal government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions of the nation’s utility companies. The court ruled that the EPA lacked the authority to push utilities to produce cleaner power because Congress had not given the agency that authority explicitly.

That means it will take an act of Congress for the federal government to provide leadership in combating global climate change. But we cannot wait for Congress to act; time is running out, and we are already facing the impacts of climate change.

According to the Washington Post, more than 40 percent of Americans live in counties that were struck by climate-related extreme weather last year, and more than 80 percent experienced a heat wave. Climate change brings fires to California, severe storms to Nebraska, hurricanes to the Gulf of Mexico, and flooding to Kentucky. As emissions climb, the earth’s average temperature rises, and weather everywhere becomes more variable and extreme.   That leads to melting of glaciers, rising sea levels, wildfires, extreme heat, stronger storms and drought, which much of the country is currently experiencing. It has been established that human activities are the dominant cause of the current rapid climate change, and it is only we humans, therefore, who can take action to mitigate the effects. And unfortunately, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, we cannot rely on the federal government to structure our response and lead us as a country in meeting this huge challenge.  Even worse, in my opinion, is that climate change is really and truly a global problem, and it is great countries like the United States that need to be providing global leadership and supporting other countries with resources and technological advances.  The Supreme Court decision, from that point of view, has also hamstrung global efforts!

So, it is on us.  Berea College has tried to lead by example when it comes to reducing our carbon emissions. We have used our resources to innovate and invest in ways that will allow us to become

a carbon-neutral campus. This includes using our forest to absorb carbon from atmosphere, utilizing horse logging to increase the health of that forest and ensure that its carbon sequestration will continue to increase, and building two hydroelectric power plants on the Kentucky River, one at Lock and Dam 12 already complete and operating and the other under construction at Lock and Dam 14.  Together they  will completely offset our electricity usage, while providing many other benefits as well and even providing some revenue to the College for carrying out our mission of providing a tuition-free education to students who might otherwise be unable to attend college. We have also built and renovated our residence halls and other buildings following LEED or

Horses being used to move lumber

Horse logging is just one example of the many sustainable practices used by Berea College to combat climate change.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design guidelines to use less energy and water.

These sustainability efforts reflect the seventh of our eight Great Commitments at Berea College. Other organizations need to prioritize reducing greenhouse gas emissions, too.  There are many, many ways to reduce our carbon footprint—a simple Google search can illuminate them better than I can here—and they will be different for different organizations.

Climate change is a global emergency, and we must do all we can to mitigate its effects. With the government being forced to pull back, individuals and organizations will need to step up even more. Doing what we can could even inspire Congress to act; let’s be the example our legislators need!

Building a technology future like no other

Rending of the new CMIT buildingWith construction slated for two new technology-focused buildings, Berea College is embarking on a technology future like no other, a future that is inclusive of everyone while attempting to solve humanity’s most pressing technological issues. The combination of technology, the liberal arts, and practical hands-on experience for our underserved student population will have implications for Appalachia and beyond as our capable students continue to access technological fields and careers.

On June 10, we broke ground on the first of two new buildings that will better serve students eying careers in the tech-related fields of the future. The first building, which will be home to computer science, digital media and information technology, is planned for completion in the spring of 2024.  The second building, with construction to follow in 2025, will house engineering technologies and applied design, including sculpture and ceramics.

Together the two buildings will replace the Danforth Technology Building, which was constructed in 1958 and can no longer meet the needs of a modern technology curriculum. With computer science becoming the most popular major on campus, the need for new facilities was apparent. Both new buildings will be constructed to meet the curricular needs of the present and future, feature transparent classrooms where students can see technology learning on display and spacious labs and studios and maker spaces that stimulate creativity and problem-solving.

These new buildings will serve our untypical population of students, all of whom come from backgrounds usually underrepresented in technology fields. Nearly all of our students are from low-income families (98% qualify for Pell Grants); nearly 60 percent of them of first-generation college students; 45 percent are of color; and nearly three-quarters of them are from Kentucky and/or Appalachia. We have a great track record of sending our graduates on to careers in technology, despite the lack of diversity typical in that industry.New CMIT building from a different angle

That’s important as we seek to build a technology future that is inclusive of everyone regardless of gender, race, or economic background. The average starting salary is nearly $60,000 in the tech sector, so that these careers are instrumental in advancing the social mobility of the students we serve, who come from households making on average half that amount annually.

Also important is the integration of the liberal arts, learning and labor. Our students do not just learn to be adept coders, their liberal arts education enables them to see the ethical dimensions of the technologies they are advancing.  We believe what higher education leader Randy Bass has said about the future of technology and post-secondary education: that as machines get better and better at being machines, the best thing that higher education can do is teach humans to become better at being human. In addition, through Berea’s Labor Program, which requires all students to work for the College, most Computer Science majors work in Berea’s IT program, which allows them to apply what they learn in the classroom in real-world settings, adding significant practical learning to their academic program.

As always, the Berea College motto—God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth—drives our efforts to build a technological future that includes everyone, that attempts to solve human problems, and presents a new age for Appalachia. These two new buildings represent a faithful investment in our students and in Kentucky and the Appalachian region.

In-Person Commencement Brings Hope for the Future

Lyle Roelofs applauding For the first time since 2019, Berea College celebrated commencement in person. The joyous day did not mark the end of the pandemic, but it did prove one thing about this group of graduates: they are resilient. They have succeeded despite adversity, and that is something we should celebrate.

In 2020 and 2021, we celebrated remotely as the graduates of those class years “walked” from a distance. I’m happy to say that 45 members of those classes accepted our invitation to come back and cross the stage this year. While we did what we had to during the height of the pandemic, virtual commencement ceremonies are just not the same. There’s something about the tradition, the regalia, the experience of personal interaction that cannot be sufficiently replicated online, try as we did. The two-year absence of ceremonies made this year’s commencement that much sweeter, even if we still had to wear our masks and avoid the traditional handshake.

We’ve learned a lot over the past two years.President Lyle Roelofs elbow bumps a graduate

We learned that though we had thought colleges are slow and resistant to change, in fact they are able to adapt much more nimbly than we had imagined thanks to modern technology. We learned something, too, about this generation of young people. They are more adaptive and resilient and more able than they’ve been given credit for. Generation Z has proven their critics wrong! They not only survived the pandemic, they succeeded in meeting all the challenges associated with continuing their academic progress! And now they are college graduates—a fact that carries with it all the hope of past years with an extra tinge of pride that they can, indeed, face difficult situations and come out successful.

Geoffrey CanadaIn fact, our commencement speaker, Geoffrey Canada, made the point that the best of America is yet to come because of this next generation. Canada, author and creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which was replicated throughout the country when President Barack Obama created the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, spoke of how famed suffragette Susan B. Anthony did not see women get the vote in her lifetime. But she predicted it would happen, and the next generation saw it through after her death. Whatever important goals our generation has not been able to accomplish, this already talented and intelligent group of graduates, steeled by surviving a global pandemic, will bring to fruition one day. Mr. Canada asked them to promise him that they would take up that challenge; from the platform I could see eager assent in 265 faces!

Likewise, the setbacks this generation will face will be overcome by the generation that follows them, and so the march of progress will continue as each new generation leaves the world a better place than they found it. That is always the hope of commencement, that these minds, full of fresh ideas and determination, will take on the task of creating a society shaped by values like the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality and peace with justice.

When the world appears bleak, or even seems to take a step backwards, I am reminded that commencement carries with it a unique hope for the future. I was SO proud to see the graduates of 2020, 2021, and 2022 come together again in person after a two-year hiatus. They gave all of us renewed hope and optimism. I hope you will join me in celebrating.

Visible for those who can't be Class of '22 This one is for my family I wanted to give up but remembered who was watching Mortar board that says The best is yet to come

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.