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Sharing the Load: Belonging at Berea College

Sharing the Load: Belonging at Berea College

By Dr. Cheryl Nixon, Berea College President

I’ve only been at Berea College a short time, and already I have heard so many heartwarming and heart-inspiring stories. They are often stories of curiosity, discovery, friendship, and joy—but also stories of overcoming difficulties and succeeding despite how hard life can be. Berea specializes in the sharing of those kinds of stories by encouraging students to see themselves in one another, lift each other up, and imagine new futures together.

Our students’ stories, naturally, begin at home.  At colleges like Berea that emphasize access to higher education no matter your background or income, students might feel the need to carry the weight of their family’s legacy.  For a first-generation, low-income and/or minority student, the pressure to go to college and do well in life can mean being a symbol of success for everyone connected to you—which can be source of meaning and empowerment but can also be a heavy load.

The good news for Berea College students is that there are others to share that load because they know what it’s like, whether they are Appalachian, of minority status or an immigrant. We welcome students into a community that provides a tapestry of interwoven connections, encouraging student initiatives while offering spaces of support.

Marlene ’26 was a shy kid from Iowa when she came to Berea last year. The first-generation college student grew up in a sizeable Latinx community, a child of Mexican immigrants who had carried their American dreams with them to work at the local meat-packing plant. Now in college, Marlene didn’t want to further her education just for her own sake, but for everyone who had come before her.

That’s quite a bit of pressure for a young person, but Marlene handles it with grace. An engineering technologies and applied design (ETAD) and environmental science major, she understood early on that to succeed in college, she needed to find a way to feel more at home in her new environment. That meant overcoming her shyness to make friends and form a support circle while in college. It also meant doing something about the home cooking she missed and craved—the Mountaineer Dining Hall doesn’t provide the meals she’s used to.

To remedy that, Marlene and a new friend began gathering ingredients from the dining hall to take back to their residence hall kitchen to prepare meals more familiar to them. Soon, other students joined in—many from other cultures also looking for a taste of home. During Ramadan, a month of fasting and prayer for Islamic students, Marlene prepared food for them for iftar, a meal served after sunset. By the end of her first year, Marlene had found friendship and belonging in her residence hall, at the Espacio Cultural Latinx (ECL), and with the wider campus community.

Now a sophomore, Marlene is outgoing and bubbly, ambitious and hopeful—and an expert cook! Having learned from Marlene, Lizbeth Saucedo-Wilson ‘16, Latinx Student Support Coordinator, plans to create more opportunities for students at the ECL to bond over food.

The mission of Berea College has always been to insist on the inherent kinship of all people and, therefore, to offer support and a sense of belonging while attending school. Higher education is welcoming in increasing numbers of first-generation, low-income students.  Berea College, like many other colleges, is focused on providing multiple opportunities for students to create a sense of home—to create a tapestry of success that reflects who they are and who they want to become. I am thrilled to be a participant in their success as they make their families, their communities, and most importantly, themselves proud!

Four graduates pose for image after graduation at Berea College
Berea College student poses for a selfie.