The Berea College community is made of many individuals with almost as many passions. And while we are bound by a shared commitment to excellence and to education, these passions sometimes lead to tension with each other and difficult balancing acts. This can be a challenge, but I believe that by looking beyond tension and even balance for synergy, we foster a stronger and more intentional community.
Berea College honors Eight Great Commitments, so there are a LOT of places tension can develop and many places to seek balance. For example, when we consider “whom shall we serve,” the question arises, should we focus on Appalachian students from the mountains or emphasize our commitment to interracial community and education? Similar conundrums occur when we ask, how do we honor our Christian commitment while recognizing that “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth, (Acts 17:26)” whatever their faith commitment, and welcoming all into the community; or how should we balance the tension and stress for students who participate in a very rigorous academic program while making substantial time commitments to their work for the College and their interest in service?
When the community confronts such questions, Berea’s approach is unlike the strategies that most other institutions use. For example, unlike other institutions, we do not simply allot each idea a certain amount of resources and “let a 1000 flowers bloom.” Nor do we ask the community to vote on priorities for the year and use the results to choose between alternatives, because we are committed to all of the Great Commitments regardless of changes in outside circumstances or our own varying interests. Most importantly, we do not simply ignore the tensions, which is probably the most common strategy of all when it comes to institutional planning.
How, then, does Berea College confront these challenges as a community? The truth is, there is no simple recipe or governance process, but our solutions and outcomes often reflect a synergy between efforts that might have been in tension, a synergy that finds value beyond simple balance.
A good example of this is how we approach the tension between our Second and Seventh Great Commitments to a high quality liberal arts education and a labor program requiring all students also to provide upwards of 10 hours of work to the College each week. In this case the tension manifests itself as stress in the lives of students who are trying to meet both of those obligations at a high level of accomplishment. And simply seeking balance might mean lower expectations in both areas, so that students could accommodate both a full academic schedule and their labor contributions. Here, the synergy we have found is the understanding that work is a key part of student learning.
Labor supervisors are not only helping students learn work skills, but also supporting them in learning the time management abilities that will be crucial to them later in their future busy professional lives. And, many of Berea’s labor positions allow students the opportunity to apply what they are learning in their courses. While not every current Berea student would agree that seeing work as part of education resolves that tension, I have spoken with countless alumni who see that aspect of their Berea education as its single most important aspect and a key reason for the successes they have achieved in their professional lives.
Does the realization that work contributes so essentially to the educational experience fully resolve the tension for Berea students? No, it does not, and we are very aware that these pressures are a challenge for our students. So I am very happy that our newly created FRESH Start initiative, will introduce understanding of stress and coping skills to our students in their first year, as a way to improve their academic performance and health, with the added benefit of providing a model for understanding how activities in one area of life connect to other areas. The model uses eight dimensions of wellness: emotional, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, spiritual, and sustainable. Through the program, students will see that one’s occupational wellness influences all the other dimensions, not just financial wellness, as some might expect. Understanding these interrelations helps prepare students for success throughout college and also, for their futures, to seek synergy when facing similar challenges later in life.