Kentucky’s Berea College

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on August 13, 2000

When the Rev. John G. Fee built a school in rural eastern Kentucky in the 1850s, he welcomed all colors, classes, cheap and thorough. Nearly 150 years later, Berea College still fits Fees idealand its not only cheap, its free.

The price for admission has little to do with dollars. Applicants must have limited financial means, rank in the upper three-fifths of their classes, and meet ACT and SAT test score requirements. They also must answer essay questions and participate in interviews. But once accepted, each student receives a scholarship worth nearly $16,000 annually. To supplement that scholarship, they must participate in a work program.

Bereas reputation for rigorous academics left William Hagans II worried he couldnt excel therethough he graduated fourth in his high school class. After his second year on campus, hed exceeded his expectations.

This is a great place for self-discovery, he says. They push you to a level you didnt believe you could go, and then you get there and think, Wow! I did it!

Hagans, who grew up in Knott County about two hours away, is the fourth to attend Berea in a family of 11 children. He is typical of the students the liberal arts college seeks primarily to serve: ambitious, hard-working Appalachian residents with limited opportunity for higher education. Eighty percent of Bereas 1,500 students fit this profile; 20 percent are from other states and several foreign countries.

Despite its regional focus, diversity is valued at Berea. Both the college and the town that grew around it were founded on a policy of interspersion, meaning both land and classrooms were divided equally among black and white familiesa progressive notion in the pre-Civil War South.

I can easily be the only American at the lunch table, says Amy Hille, a junior studying international relations. My best friends on campus are Greek, African, and Tibetan.

Its a small town in central Kentucky, but having such a cosmopolitan college makes the town more cosmopolitan than youd think.

Belle Jackson, executive director for tourism and a fourth-generation Berea resident, describes her community with a question: What other small town in the South can you walk out of a coffeehouse, round the corner, and run into the Dalai Lama? (The Buddhist leader visited Berea in 1994 to affirm the colleges dedication to maintaining the largest Tibetan student population of any U.S. institution.)

Outside Kentucky, Jackson finds her Berean heritage a social asset. Whether right or wrong, people believe they know something about me based on Bereas reputation as a place of bright, hard-working, artistic people.

The schools unique work program fuels that perception. Every student has a mandatory campus job, working 10 to 15 hours per week in any one of 140 different departments from maintenance, to administration, to community service. Students also help operate several school-owned businesses, including the historic Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant.

Hagans works in the campus athletic facility, performing a variety of tasks from changing light bulbs to repairing electrical outlets.

I love being a part of this job, he says. Ive met so many people to learn from, people whove taught me theres more than one way to solve a problem, that you have everything you need to do anything, you just have to find it.

Since the beginning, Berea students have also engaged in utilitarian arts such as broom-making, weaving, and potteryleading to Bereas official designation as The Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky.

Sanjeewa Goonasekera, a chemistry major from Sri Lanka, was assigned to the weaving department as a freshman. His job? To operate the fly-shuttle loom, a complicated weaving device operated with foot pedalsa machine hed never even heard of before.

I felt very awkward at first, he recalls. But they were patient with me, and I appreciated the opportunity to learn a new skill, even though I ruined a lot of material in the process.

The work program allows students to earn money for expenses and graduate with only modest debt. Moreover, they get four years of real-world job experience, an asset for post-college employment.

Its not a conventional approach, but it works. Berea College has been named the No. 1 regional college in the South by U.S. News & World Report six times. And major media such as The New York Times and The London Times have lauded Berea as a place of innovation and accomplishment, attracting faculty from universities such as Harvard and Yale.

Its cool to come from a community with such a rich heritage, Jackson says. The only downfall is you cant be anonymous. If I dial a wrong number, I wind up talking to the person anyway because we inevitably know each other.