What is Berea College Really Like?
Here's the inside scoop
Are you considering applying to become a student at Berea College? Are you worried as to whether it is the right choice for you?
Entering this next phase of your life involves some big decisions, and you don't want to make a mistake! You want to go beyond the bare facts about Berea and find out what it is really like to be a student there. How difficult is the workload? How hard is it to get in? What is the student life really like? Can it really equip you with the skills you need to succeed in life?
While I can't answer all of your questions, I can give you a no-holds-barred, completely honest, pull no punches "insiders look" at what exactly the next four years of your life are going to be like.
I will reveal some tips on how you might gain admission, as well as what you will need to succeed at Berea. At the same time, I will reveal some facts that you may not necessarily wish to hear about Berea College but that you will be grateful knowing about before you apply. These are things you will never learn from the Wikipedia entry on the college, nor from the college's official website.
While it is difficult to convey the full experience of a college in cold print and photographs, I will attempt to paint a picture of just what to expect at Berea College. In addition, I will try to provide helpful hints, tips, insider secrets and just a friendly "arm around the shoulder” as I guide you around the campus.
In addition to students who are considering Berea College (or those who are about to begin there), this is for those who have already started at Berea and want some advice or encouragement – the knowledge that someone else has gone through many of the same things that they're going through right now. Finally, this is for alumni of Berea who just want an opportunity to reminisce over old times.
Before I go any further, I should offer full disclosure: although I am a graduate of Berea College I am not exactly a recent graduate. I don't wish to date myself too badly, but when I was a student at Berea, the very first Macintosh was introduced (I'm talking about the computer, not the fruit, smarty)!
Before you quickly close this page, let me point out that Berea prides itself on its stability and tradition. Things such as the college’s core mission, its campus, its philosophy, the town atmosphere, student life – these are all things that don't change quickly, if at all. And that's exactly what we will be focusing on.
In addition, I will draw from online sources, Including the college’s official website, to ensure that my information is correct, updated and up-to-the-minute. I will do my best to give you as close a feel for what Berea is like as is possible. That said, I realize that I may be “out of the loop” on some of the ways Berea has changed in recent years, so I welcome comments, updates and corrections from current students and recent graduates.
Finally, all of this will be told as seen through my own eyes and from my own viewpoint based on my own recollections and personal experiences. I think that will be the best way to give you an "up close," first-person idea of what Berea College is like. So grab yourself a beverage, sit back and allow me to bring you to the town of Berea Kentucky while I guide you through the next four years of your life.
First of all, it is well to remember that Berea College is not a particularly easy school to get into. According to Wikipedia, only about one third of those who send in their applications are accepted. Of those who are, a very high percentage end up enrolling – 72% – putting Berea College behind only Harvard and Stanford in that respect.
Finding out about Berea in the first place seems to be the hardest part of the process, for it may well be one of the best kept secrets in academia. I happened to find out about it because my dad was a college professor (he taught at Northern Montana College for years), so he was fairly “in the loop" as far as the academic world goes.
If you wish to apply to Berea College, be sure you know what the requirements are. You should have an acceptable grade point average, you should generally live within the geographical region Berea serves, and you should meet the financial requirements. Be sure to read the full requirements on the college's website. Although the college concentrates on those within the Appalachian region of the US, some of the students come from outside of that area, and about 8% are international students.
Berea is such a desirable college to get into because the college charges no tuition; students get essentially a full, four-year scholarship that is worth $100,000 in current dollars (or $25,000 per year). This is no small gift and, if you should be so fortunate as to get into Berea, you should accept the privilege with the gratitude and determination to succeed that it deserves.
As far as financial requirements go, remember that Berea is a college for underprivileged students and those who are accepted generally fall within the bottom 40% of income of all US households.
I was perhaps a bit out of the geographical region that Berea typically draws students from; although my home state of Indiana borders Kentucky, I live in the northwestern region of the state, far closer to the Chicago area than to Berea or the Appalachian region.
I certainly fell into the financial eligibility requirements of Berea College, however; my mother, a divorced working woman, and I lived in Gary Indiana, which has, at one time or another, been named the “murder capital of the country.” So the opportunity to get an all-expense paid college education in Kentucky was not one to be sneezed at.
Writing a good application letter may help. My grandmother, bless her, tried to aid in this regard when she wrote her own letter to the college in which she called me a "phenomenal speller" with “an aptitude for creative writing,” a “prolific reader” and somebody who would be "an asset to the school.” Thanks, grandma!
She mentioned that I wanted to be a cartoonist, “which is a very difficult field to enter” and so I would certainly benefit from a four year college education. She mentioned that I did library work at my church, and, indeed, one of the jobs I was provided at Berea College was working in the library acquisitions department. Hmmm…maybe grandma’s letter was actually read by the college administration and helped after all…!
The Liberal Arts Philosophy
Keep in mind that Berea College is a liberal arts institution. What this means is that it aims to provide a general education in a broad swath of human knowledge so as to develop one's intellectual capabilities as opposed to providing strictly professional or vocational skills.
This does not mean that Berea College provides no vocational training, as a wide range of skills are taught at the institution. What it means is that Berea College intends to provide a broad general knowledge as opposed to a narrow professional or technical education.
The value of a liberal arts education (and even of a college education itself) has been debated over the years, Including in such books as The Sheepskin Psychosis by John Keats and The Case Against College by Caroline Bird. I personally think a liberal arts education has value, as long as it is seen as a stepping stone to more targeted and specific vocational training. In my view, in this rapidly changing world, vocational training must be an ongoing and lifelong process.
While it may seem a drag to have to take vocational classes after already putting in four years at a more generalized college, the days in which one could expect to work in the same industry one’s entire lifetime are long gone.
There are other advantages to a liberal arts education. For my part, I suffered from a case of severe shyness and it was thought that a four-year education in which I was away from home and forced to interact with other people my age and to learn about the broad scope of the world (as well as myself) would be a good way to overcome it. In short, four years at Berea College would be a good way for me to find myself.
Transportation and Housing
Remember that Berea is a small town of only about 14,000, so it's not exactly a transportation hub of the region. Today there is a small Greyhound office near the Berea campus (that wasn't there when I attended; the Greyhound bus just stopped near Boone Tavern).
I flew to Berea for the first time via Lexington (about 40 miles from Berea) and from the airport there I took a cab to the Greyhound station. When I arrived at Berea, there were some girls from the college waiting at the bus stop in a van who took my luggage and brought me to Blue Ridge, my dormitory. The guy who happened to be sitting in front of me on the bus became my roommate for my first year.
Automobile ownership by students is discouraged at Berea, the rationale probably being that if you need subsidized education, then how can you afford the costs of car ownership? A special permit is required to have a car at Berea and such permits are rarely granted to first or second year students. For this reason, one of my first purchases while at the college was a bicycle. There are bicycle racks in front of most dormitories as well as the cafeteria.
The bicycle came in especially handy since I was housed in Blue Ridge, which, being about a quarter mile from the main campus, is probably the most isolated of any of the dormitories. I considered Blue Ridge a sort of "Boot Camp" for incoming male freshman. Blue Ridge has a communal washroom on each floor with urinals, toilet stalls and showers.
When I was at Blue Ridge, the dormitory had a problem with mice, and previous students had complained about cockroaches, although I didn't see any while I was there (you might want to bring some d-CON, anyway). In any event, a little walking is good for you, and if you can't stand the walk to and from Blue Ridge for one year, then you probably shouldn't be at college, anyway.
There are always some bad apples, and while I was at Blue Ridge, someone was vandalizing the dorm – breaking the keys on the piano in the rec room, snapping a pool cue and ping-pong paddle – that kind of thing.
One evening, the dorm's hundred or so residents, some of whom had retired for the night, were stirred by the fire alarm and were evacuated to the dorm's front lawn, where an impromptu meeting was held.
It turned out that someone had placed a pizza roaster in the oven and turned the oven on. The dorm director told us that unless the perpetrator stepped forward or was turned in, each resident would have to pay a $5 fine (which to me at the time was a lot of money).
We had to pay such a fine on two or three occasions, but in retrospect I think the punishment was a fair one. After all, everyone has to pay for the wrongdoings of a minority in the "real world" in the form of higher taxes. Fortunately, I don't think such "bad apples" last much longer than a year at Berea College, or at least they didn't back then.
After my freshman year, I managed to snag a single occupancy room in Danforth, a dormitory on the campus quadrangle and much closer to all the action. The dorm director of Blue Ridge kindly brought over to my new dorm the two boxes of my personal belongings that had been stored in Blue Ridge's attic over summer break.
I chose a single occupancy at Danforth because I thought it would allow me to better concentrate on my studies (and besides, I was kind of an introvert). Danforth houses 144 residents and is organized into suites with six rooms to each suite. Each suite has its own lavatory, sinks, bath and kitchen. In addition, Danforth features such niceties as carpeting and central air-conditioning. There are lounges for recreation, socializing and studying.
One day in the lower main lobby, some of the guys were tilting the Coke machine in order to get free drinks and invited me to join them. I begged off, and was informed that I was "too pure." Perhaps, but I thought that beat getting into trouble over a couple of free Cokes.
One thing to keep in mind about Danforth (and some other dormitories) is that residents are each assigned certain chores in keeping the place clean. One resident, for example, may have the job of cleaning the sinks in his suite once a week, one must scrub out the shower, another will clean the toilet, and so on. My job was to vacuum the floor.
I didn't mind this chore at all, but, unfortunately, since it only came up once a week, I sometimes had a tendency to forget. When I forgot one time too many, I was hauled in front of the college residence hall officer and told in no uncertain terms that if I forgot again, I would be kicked out of Danforth.
After that, I did everything I could to make sure I didn't forget – I marked my calendar religiously, I put Post-It notes around the room, and each week, a day or two before the chore was to be done, I put my wastebasket in front of my door as an added reminder, so I had to move it every time I left the room. Needless to say, I did not forget my chores after that.
Town and Climate
One thing to understand about Berea is that it is basically a one-industry town, that industry being the college itself. The whole town grew up around the college, and without the college, the town would probably consist of a single traffic light and a feed store (if even that). Therefore, don't expect a lot of interesting amenities such as shopping or fine dining at Berea.
When I was at Berea, the two biggest stores in the town were Heck's and TG&Y (before coming to Berea, I hadn't heard of them either). Both stores have long since been replaced by a Walmart, which is at the far west end of town, near US 75. Aside from that, there's not a whole lot of shopping to be done in Berea (aside from the student-produced crafts and folk art).
On the campus, there is a block of small stores adjacent to Boone Tavern, including the Berea College Bookstore. Most of these stores sell crafts and other items geared to the tourist trade, but there are also a few useful amenities there, such as an eatery and a hair salon (which must have been a welcome addition, since when I attended the college I had to bike well past the campus to find a barbershop).
Most of the businesses along Highway 25, the main drag running through the town, will be of little interest to students, aside from, perhaps, a Subway sandwich shop and a few other chain restaurants. You will need to get to them by some means other than walking, however, since most of them are some distance from the campus. There are a couple of banks on Chestnut Street within walking distance where you will probably want to open an account while you are in Berea.
When I was a freshman, an alert was sent out by the college president, Willis Weatherford, to all students concerning a sexual assault that had taken place on campus and a robbery at knifepoint of two students in Draper building. These incidents caused a great deal of alarm, because, when I was at Berea, such incidents were relatively rare. (Incidentally, back then, blame for such assaults was placed squarely on the perpetrators, not on "all of society," as increasingly seems to be the case today. Maybe that's one reason such crimes were rarer then.)
The college provides health checks on the students when they come to Berea. I felt a little like I was in the army as I and the other incoming male freshman moved in an assembly-line fashion from station to station – eleven in all – to get our various body parts checked. I got my ears, eyes, nose, throat, teeth, heart rate, blood pressure, lungs, privates and urine examined, at the end receiving a report on my condition from a staff doctor.
St. Joseph Berea Hospital provides minor medical aid. One day, I nicked my finger on a power saw in a sculpture class, and the teacher drove me to the hospital to get it patched up. Another time, I tried to block out some noise in my dormitory with makeshift earplugs when I was trying to sleep, and one of them entered the ear canal. It was removed free of charge by the hospital staff. St. Joseph Berea is on Estill Street, roughly adjacent to Blue Ridge dormitory.
As for climate, much of the time I was at Berea It seemed to be raining or drizzling, at least during my freshman year, so an umbrella was essential. This was probably just a fluke, although, according to Wikipedia, Berea does have a “humid continental climate,” with summers, at least, that “tend to be humid and stormy.” Wikipedia also says that the winters are "generally cold," although I found them mild compared to the harsh Indiana winters farther north. Nevertheless, during most of my freshman year at Berea I seemed to have a cold, probably because the rain kept the students indoors more than usual.
Berea College consists of a sprawling 140-acre campus with over 50 major buildings, including the dormitories. The campus looks exactly like what you would expect a Kentucky college to look like, with plenty of Georgian architecture, all steeped in history.
The campus is, in a word, magnificent, with plenty of trees and green spaces and a quadrangle with its layout of crisscrossing sidewalks. Student tour guides walk backwards through the campus during the warm months as they describe the history of the buildings to visiting groups. Everyone I showed the campus to was impressed by how large and beautiful it is.
To show my naïveté before I arrived at Berea, I was expecting the college to consist of a single big building, something like my old high school! In reality, Draper Building alone is nearly the size of my high school.
Each discipline of study at Berea has one or more buildings devoted to it. For example, art majors have the Rogers-Traylor Building, music majors have Presser Hall, theatrical majors have the Jekyll Drama Center, science majors have the Hall Science Building, and so on.
Of course, any of the students can take advantage of the facilities offered at the various buildings. For example, when I was at Berea, Halley's Comet was making it's once-every-76-year pass by the earth, and I took advantage of the opportunity to see it from the observatory of the science building. Before I graduated from Berea, the science building was expanded with the addition of a planetarium and a Foucault pendulum in one of the stairwells that demonstrates how the earth rotates.
Both Hutchins Library and Presser Music Hall had excellent recorded music collections. Of course, this was in the days when the LP was king. Presser Hall is an old building with wooden floors. Signs near the audio/visual room cautioned students to walk softly because heavy footsteps could cause the records of people listening through headphones to skip! I don't think that would still be a problem in this digital music age. (Incidentally, Presser Hall has since been completely renovated.)
With so many buildings, of course, it is easy to get lost on campus if you are not familiar with it. During my first week of orientation, my roommate was starting to get annoyed by my constantly asking directions to common locations, such as the cafeteria building (my roommate had already been on a scouting trip to Berea before he enrolled there, so he was familiar with the campus). The best thing I did was to take a map in hand one afternoon and stroll through the entire campus, familiarizing myself with where everything was. I still got lost occasionally for a while after that, but I was much better.
The college cafeteria is located on the ground floor of the Alumni Building, just across the street from Union Church and next to Fairchild Hall, a girl’s dormitory. When I was at Berea, the College Post Office (CPO) was on the ground floor of Fairchild, which made it easy to check your mail just before grabbing a bite to eat (the CPO is now in Woods-Penniman). One of my favorite things about returning to Berea after summer break was opening a mailbox completely stuffed with the mail that had accumulated over the summer months, even if most of it was junk. I don't think e-mail is ever going to offer the same satisfaction!
Woods-Penniman (a former girls gymnasium) houses recreational lounges and a student café, and today Seabury Gym is coeducational. In addition to the campus itself, the college also owns several thousand acres of farmland and forest.
The campus expanded considerably since I graduated, by the way, with the addition of Ecovillage, a learning and living community consisting of 50 apartments and numerous “green" features such as an environmental studies lab and solar panels on the roofs.
One of the hallmarks of Berea College is its work-study program by which students help to pay their tuition by working a mandatory 10 hours or more per week at the college. Some of the jobs available include staffing the Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant, groundskeeping, food service, and making the arts and crafts that the college sells, including basket making, pottery and weaving
There was a joke making the rounds among the students back when I was at Berea (and probably today) along the lines of “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” While it is true that the pay is low, it should not be forgotten that a large part of the “pay” is the free tuition that the college provides to every student.
Unfortunately, some students will attempt to take advantage of the work-study program. Some use cliques in order to get cushy jobs in which they have to do little work, if any. Many of the students do as little work as possible.
While it is true that some of the jobs are much more prestigious than others, the college does try to give students a chance to work their way up. Remember also that your job performance will be rated by your supervisors, and a good work record will look good on your resume after graduating.
During my freshman year at Berea College I had two jobs: five hours a week cleaning room 5 in the art building and five hours a week working in the slide room. That job entailed pulling slides of various artworks from the filing cabinets and inserting them in the right order in the slide carousels so that professors could display them on the screen during their lectures, then filing them back away again afterwards. (Yes, technology was pretty primitive back then!)
My work in room 5 included cleaning up the various messes that the art students sometimes left there. Sometimes there was a lot to do – tempera paints all over the sinks, plaster dust on the floor – and other times there was very little to do. Nevertheless, I had to figure out creative ways to look busy since a professor or an occasional labor supervisor might drop in at any moment. At least the job gave me a chance to think.
During my sophomore through senior years I worked in the Acquisitions Department of Hutchins Library, which entailed checking in new books as they came in and making sure that the information was correct on the card that went into the card catalog. (Obviously, this was before the days of digital card catalogs!) Sometimes, I would use a computer to look up book information from the Library of Congress.
I spent my freshman year volunteering at The Pinnacle, the student newspaper and, during my sophomore year, I managed to get five hours a week paid work there. I also drew a couple of comic strips for the school paper. Unfortunately, a new editor came along and decided to hire all of her friends for the position and I was left out, despite the work I had put in.
I complained to the college labor committee to no avail. It was a disappointment, but these things have to be accepted stoically. Cliquishness, office politics and nepotism run rampant out in the real world, and this is something that you have to get used to. You'll likely experience plenty of it after graduating!
Student Life / Extra-Curricular Activities
Aside from walking, bicycling and communing with nature, there's not a whole lot to do within the town of Berea itself. Fortunately, the college provides plenty of extracurricular activities throughout the year. Films are commonly shown in Phelps Stokes Chapel and other places; while at Berea I had the chance to watch "Ghostbusters,” “Witness” (Harrison Ford), the "Star Wars" Trilogy, and others. There are plenty of athletic fields on and around the campus in which students can participate in sports. Occasional student parades take place on Chestnut Street. In addition, excellent student-acted plays are constantly performed at Jekyll Drama Center.
There are plenty of activities In which students can take part. As a budding ventriloquist, I brought my puppet with me during my freshman year so I could participate in talent shows (I also thought it would be a good way to overcome my shyness). While at Berea, my ventriloquist act was a part of a number of events, including "First Night Café” at Union Church and a talent show at my own Blue Ridge dormitory (my roommate played the guitar). I still remember another student’s parody of "I Sold My Soul to the Company Store,” but his went, "I Sold My Soul to the Berea Bookstore!") Good memories.
Counseling is offered at Berea for students with personal or emotional issues, and while at Berea I attended a shyness workshop. Another thing I did to overcome my shyness was to start a stamp collector’s club during my freshman year. I posted ads around campus and got a write up in the school newspaper. And a few people actually attended, including someone from the town. I got a lot of support from faculty and staff in my efforts. The chairman of the art department gave me some back issues of a stamp collecting periodical and the dean of the college gave me a complete, five-volume set of a stamp collector’s pricing guide.
College students have a reputation for engaging in a lot of protests (often for dubious causes) but while at Berea, I was involved in only one: the college decided to shorten its Sunday library hours, and I participated in a candlelight vigil and sit-in, spearheaded by the Berea College Student Association, on the library's front steps. The college eventually rescinded its decision and restored the original library hours.
The greatest annual tradition at Berea College is "Mountain Day." Students are taken in vans to the nearby hills where they just spend the day hiking and climbing. Dismiss any fears of scaling sheer cliffs; the climbing done here involves hiking basic grades and is done along well-established footpaths, yet at the end, you achieve an impressive height with a magnificent view.
Now, I'll confess I had a somewhat negative conception of Mountain Day at the beginning, with visions of Jed Clampett, "The Beverly Hillbillies," country folk playing musical saws and blowing into whiskey bottles and other stereotypical conceptions of Appalachian life. I shouldn't have been so narrow-minded. It turns out that Mountain Day is really a great form of hiking, socializing, fellowship and communing with nature. I wish I had participated in it more often.
On-campus, there are plenty of student lounges for socializing, such as the ones in the Alumni Building, where the cafeteria is located. When I attended, a large-screen TV near the entrance of the cafeteria was usually tuned to a news or sports program and there were plenty of comfortable benches for watching and relaxation.
I think a few words about the cafeteria are in order. Although Kentucky may have a reputation for good cooking, I must say I didn't detect any of it in the cafeteria food! Fish fillets were a frequent dinner choice but were processed and rather tasteless with no good sauce to go on them. Vegetables tasted like they came from cans. In short, I guess you could call it typical cafeteria food.
There was an occasional hamburger cookout on the patio, however, which was great! Other pluses were a dessert bar to which students could help themselves, as well as a milk dispenser serving whole, skim and chocolate milk. Breakfast offered a choice of cereals, both “healthy" as well as the sugar-sweetened variety we remember as kids.
There was no dinner served on Sundays, in order to give the food workers half-a-day off. Instead, at lunchtime students picked up a sack dinner to take back to their dorm rooms. This was universally referred to by the students as either a "sick sack" or a “barf bag." These usually contained a carton of milk, some chips, a piece of fruit such as an apple or orange, and a "hoagie,” which I guess is the southern term for submarine sandwich, and was typically dry and tasteless (there was also a vegetarian version). These days, food service continues on Sundays, but you'll still probably come to Berea for reasons other than the food.
Another thing to remember is that at Berea College, food service is really the only game in town. This is because Berea is a small community with very few good restaurants, and the few fast food places that do exist are some distance from the campus. Most students don't have transportation anyway (much less the money to pay for outside food), so you either use food service or you don't eat at all.
A more important point is the layout of the cafeteria; it can easily be seen how "popular" each student is while eating there. Remember that Berea is a small college and, as with most small towns, everybody tends to know everyone else, including how "popular" they are. So, if you end up eating by yourself a lot, it will be readily apparent to everyone. It's one thing to be seen as unpopular in high school and to often end up sitting by yourself in the cafeteria, but remember that, at Berea, you must use the cafeteria not only at lunch but for three square meals a day. I'm sure this is a source of self-consciousness for many Berea students.
On the other hand, there are no fraternities or sororities at Berea College. This is probably a good thing, because it likely cuts down on cliques. Let the rich kids have their fraternities – Berea College is for studying and getting a leg up on life (while still having a good time).
Another thing to keep in mind is that Berea is a dry town. What this means is that no alcoholic beverages are sold anywhere within the city limits (a running joke in Berea is that collegians who want to have a good time have to drive to Richmond, about 15 miles away). Really, fraternities and alcohol tend to go as hand-in-hand as mom and apple pie, so having one without the other wouldn't make much sense.
Berea College makes a big deal out of its long history of opposition to slavery and racial segregation, and indeed, it was pro-integrationist long before such a thing was fashionable. The college was founded by abolitionist and integrationist minister John G. Fee around the time of the Civil War. It was confounded by Cassius Clay (after whom the famous boxer was later named), Republican member of the Kentucky House of Representatives, who donated a large tract of land to the college.
When I was at Berea, the college had on display in the library the founder’s Bible, out of which he had literally cut the passages relating to slavery (black paper was placed behind the eviscerated pages to draw attention to the surgery).
Although Berea was one of the first to take such a stance, it is not such a big deal today. Colleges across the country fiercely compete with each other to increase their level of minority (especially black) enrollment, and add to this the competition from historically Black colleges. The upshot of all of this is that any African-American in the country who sincerely wants to go to college is almost guaranteed a scholarship to one school or another.
Colleges are routinely criticized for not having the "proper mix” of minority students. But according to Berea College's "Quick Facts," today approximately one in three students is an ethnic minority or international. Such numbers may lead one to wonder if any discrimination Berea College engages in today might not be against the poor whites in the greater Appalachian region whom the college is also tasked with serving.
From my understanding, Berea College is a more academically rigorous college than most, which means you had better be willing to study and work hard if you wish to graduate. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that Berea College is a liberal arts college, which means that students must study in a wide variety of academic fields, not just those that they may be most interested in or comfortable with.
Even within one's own field, the workload can be tough. For example, I was an art major, and all art majors, whether they want to become practicing artists, art teachers or art historians, have to take a lot of classes on the history of art.
Any type of history, as you know, requires memorizing a lot of names and dates, but I found a book on memory improvement (mnemonics) helped somewhat. I also did my fair share of cramming for tests and pulling the occasional all-nighter, but for some time after graduating, I still occasionally had the dreaded "test anxiety" dream! In any event, after four years at Berea, I felt like art history was coming out of my ears. I took those classes because I had to in order to do what I truly loved to do: draw and paint.
One of the more interesting classes I took, however, was an exploration of the college's special collections, a peek inside the storeroom of the works of art that the college has accumulated over the years, some of them dating back to the Renaissance era and before. We also got to tour Hutchins Library's special collections of rare books, the Appalachian Museum and the Science Building's geology collection.
The above class was offered during "Short Term," a special semester that lasts only for the month of January in between the regular Fall and Spring Semesters. Students have only one class (an elective), but it meets for more hours than a regular class does. Short Term offers a chance to rest and recuperate before the more difficult Spring Semester begins.
Another interesting Short Term class was "Nutrition for Exercise and Health," in which the students discovered their body fat percentages through "skin fold" caliper measurements on their arms, back and stomach. We also went to the weight room in Seabury Gym to test our strength by lifting weights (based on a percentage of our body weight). Somewhat to my surprise, I scored either "very good" or "excellent" on every test. A computer program gave us our nutritional and caloric intake in graph form.
As an art major, I also got plenty of drawing and painting experience, including those of the human figure. In those classes, the students were offered an opportunity to vote on the use of live, nude models in the class, but those who still objected for religious or personal reasons were allowed to opt out.
I also had to take an Intro to BASIC Programming class at Berea. This was back in the days when many people still thought that in order to use a computer, you had to know how to program one. One of the assignments was to create a perpetual calendar that would show on which day in history any date that was entered had occurred. I believe that this and other classes were graded on a curve, because I managed to pass even though I never succeeded in producing a working calendar. (Incidentally, most of the computers on campus at that time were "dumb terminals" tied into the mainframe in the basement of Lincoln Hall. Today, every student is given a laptop to use throughout their stay at Berea and to take with them when they graduate.)
Acting, which was held in Jekyll Drama Center, was a required class for all students. Some of the class exercises were – how shall we say – a bit unusual. One day, they had each student pretend he or she was an animal while the rest of the class watched. The teacher's assistant said, "Now, you're going to feel a little embarrassed doing this, but that's the point."
On other days, we did such things as running around the room while shaking our hands in front of us, grabbing each other's ears, and rubbing butts together. This was supposed to "increase our control over our bodies," but I think the real purpose was to release some of our inhibitions and to reduce our self-consciousness, which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense. Who knows? Some of the lessons I learned in that class may still be with me today in my job as a part-time entertainer (but not the rubbing butts part).
Since Berea is a Christian college, some of the required classes I took focused on the Christian faith, its philosophy and its history, but the college did not require that the students adopt any particular viewpoint. In fact, students were encouraged to think for themselves.
Hutchins Library was stocked with a wide variety of books on all aspects of Christianity and other religions so that students could come to their own conclusions. One of the more interesting books that I read on my own was In the Beginning by Isaac Asimov, a verse-by-verse examination of how the first chapters of the Old Testament had been assembled from historical sources.
Rattling off some of the names of the classes I took will give you an idea of the scope and depth of the education I got at Berea: Ceramic Production (never had much of a knack for that), Religious and Historical Perspectives, General Psychology, Sculpture: Direct Techniques, Concepts in Modern Biology, African American Literature, Painting: Water-Based, Art of India, Intro to Graphic Arts, Natural Science (that was a tough one), Drawing, Printmaking, American Government, Sociology of Everyday Life, Intro to Journalism… (In case you're wondering, no, I didn't rattle off these course names from memory – I looked at my college transcripts!)
One advantage of the rigorous courseload is that, after graduating from four years of Berea College with honors, I had an accomplishment to which I could point with a fair amount of pride.
One of the centerpieces of a Berea College education are the weekly convocations. These are lectures given to the student body by visiting speakers in the college’s historic Phelps Stokes Chapel auditorium and other places on campus. The variety of topics and speakers represented is impressive.
Students are required to attend a certain number of convocations every year, but they don't have to attend all of them. In other words, they can pick and choose those that are most interesting to them. That means you're not required to attend any particular convocation if you find it offensive or simply uninteresting.
Students are only required to be physically present at the convocations; they don't have to actually pay attention. There are no tests. Students might doodle, look at their screens or even study if they wish. The only requirement is that their ears (and minds) have to be open. Today, students can even receive three convocation credits if they attend one theatre event, one musical event, and one dance event during the school year.
It would have been hard for me to believe as a kid, but the convocations are one of my fondest memories of Berea College. I still remember some of the events and the topics covered to this day. The college goes to a great deal of trouble and expense to bring interesting speakers from all over the country (and maybe the world) and I don't think all of the students appreciate it as much as they might.
I know I would love to take advantage of the convocations nowadays if I could. It's true that today we have YouTube and TED Talks, but there's nothing like going into a real building with a lot of other people your age and hearing live speakers who have been flown from all over just to talk to you. Appreciate it while you have the opportunity!
Aside from football, nearly all sports are represented at Berea College: baseball, basketball, cross country, golf, soccer, tennis, track and field. Furthermore, at Berea College, sports are not just for the jocks. As a liberal arts college, every student is required to take a certain number of course credits in athletic activities. While I was at Berea, I took classes in swimming/field events, golf and tennis.
At least during the time I was at Berea, swimming was a mandatory course credit. That portion of the course took place during the cold months, and when the weather turned nice enough we switched to field events. However, I didn't think enough time was devoted to the swim portion of the class. Some of the students still had not lost their fear of the water, and one student refused to swim across the deep end of the pool.
My own experience may not have boosted his self-confidence. When I attempted it, it seemed to take an inordinately long time to reach the other end of the pool. I was relieved when I felt a hand grab me and pull me out. It turned out to be that of my roommate, who was taking the class at the same time I was. Somehow I had gotten turned around while swimming and was going the length of the pool (towards the deep end) rather than the width. The coach advised me that it's a good idea to keep your eyes open while swimming. Duh!
For the golf class, the students were driven out in vans to a nearby golf course. I was paired with a girl who mainly complained about the “unfairness" of having to take athletics in order to graduate from college, but I was philosophical about the whole process and did my best in all of the activities. My biggest complaint was that I worked up quite a sweat in some of the classes (especially field events), but there wasn't always time to take a shower before my next class, so I had to go to my next class sweaty.
Seabury Gym (since then rebuilt and expanded) offered facilities that any student could use, just as it does now. For a few months, inspired by my earlier exercise class, I took advantage of the weight room there to see if I could build up my physique, which I hoped would in turn build up my self-confidence. I didn't see any noticeable changes in my appearance, but I did significantly increase my strength (which was already pretty good to begin with). It was a worthy experiment, and if I had not taken advantage of the opportunity, I would always have regretted it.
Final Weeks at Berea
Your last year at Berea College will be the most hectic, as you catch up on required courses, tie up various loose ends and prepare for graduation. This will be particularly true during your final semester. Majors in every discipline will have specific tasks that they must perform to "prove" their worthiness to graduate.
For example, as an art major, I had to take a Senior Seminar class which met only once a week but kept me plenty busy! I had to write a formal statement concerning my art, draw up a resume, choose art pieces I had created while at Berea for exhibit, get them framed, and have them professionally photographed.
During my final semester, my entire weekdays were filled with classes or student labor and a large part of evenings and weekends were as well. In addition, a preliminary public critique on my and the three other graduating seniors' work was required before the final critique came up a month later.
Furthermore, all students had a Senior Requirement class, mine being "Christ In Time" which required the students give oral reports on the readings they had been assigned. I also had three books to read, one of which I chose myself, on which I had to write and deliver an oral report at the end of the semester.
I felt a deep rush of relief as I completed all my requirements one by one and saw my graduation ahead of me. The days at Berea became a little bittersweet as I realized I was strolling the campus and surveying the halls of the art building and other familiar places for the very last time.
One of my former art teachers sat me down in the art building and had a sincere talk with me while she expressed concerns about my shyness. I appreciated her concern but it also made me realize what public knowledge the issue was.
My faculty advisor of four years also talked to me about my shyness, but he accused me of not trying hard enough to overcome the problem, which was not true; I had made a concerted effort while at Berea to become more outgoing.
He also lectured me on all the things that I should have done to prepare for a career during my stay at Berea, particularly during my last year, but hadn't. Perhaps he was well-intentioned, but I didn't understand why he waited until the last week before graduating to tell me all these things. I am sure that if he had told me earlier, I would have tried my best to follow his advice. Oh well, such is life.
Life After Berea
The college put on a fine graduation ceremony. One speaker defined an education as "what you carry away with you after you have forgotten the specific facts and figures your professors made you memorize." The college president also spoke, saying that "You will always carry a part of Berea around with you as long as you live."
Not too long after graduating, it became increasingly clear, however, that I had to continue my education. More and more help-wanted ads (those were in the days before Monster.com) indicated that anyone who wanted a career in the visual, commercial or graphic arts needed to have digital design skills. The world was changing rapidly. More and more analog processes were being computerized.
Fortunately, I had the choice of a number of art schools in the Chicago Loop area at which I could continue my training, one of them being the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I took classes at all three schools to see which one I liked best, eventually settling on the latter.
Needless to say there was a big difference between studying in the big city and the small town of Berea Kentucky. And Berea won hands-down. I found the teachers in the big city to be aloof and unfriendly. Worse, some of the faculty were clearly only interested in money.
At one of the schools, the “advisor” tried to get me to sign up for all kinds of expensive classes, none of them digital, that I clearly didn't need and that would had tied me up for years. In short, they put the pursuit of profits ahead of the needs of the students.
And that was the difference between Berea and the big city. At Berea, all in all, I felt the faculty and staff really and truly cared about the students and had their best interests at heart. They were far more concerned about preparing students for life than for making a buck.
This level of personal caring and concern is what separates a superior institution of higher learning like Berea from all the rest. And after graduating from Berea, I wasn't saddled with the burden of tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt, either!
As for my shyness, my most liberating moment came when I realized that this is just the way I am and to stop trying to change myself but instead to find ways to cope with and to work around the problem.
What lessons should you learn from my experiences at Berea? If I have any advice for you, it is to recognize that learning is a lifelong process and that the education you get at Berea is only the beginning. You should also talk to your advisors, teachers and professors and get their advice on what you should do to pursue your career goals long before graduating – don't wait for them to volunteer that information!
But also, don't take their advice too seriously. Frankly, the world is changing so rapidly that your professors probably can't predict what the world is going to be like tomorrow, much less ten years from now.
As an experiment, I recently drew up a list of some of the technological advancements that have appeared or come into common usage since I enrolled at Berea College, and if printed out double-spaced at 12-point type, it would come to multiple pages – everything from in-car navigation systems to intelligent voice-activated assistants like Siri to Google Glass to IBM Watson to autonomous drones to 3D printing to driverless cars – and this was just the highlights. If I couldn't have predicted any of these technological advancements, you probably won't be able to predict the ones that lie just ahead either.
Now, you may argue that when I entered Berea, the world was in a state of technological flux, and that the speed of advancement has settled down today. I would argue quite the contrary! Due to the exponentially advancing nature of information technology, technological progress is actually speeding up!
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors (hardly a crackpot) has said that artificial intelligence is advancing far more rapidly than most people realize, to the point where it could someday become an existential threat to mankind. The authors of Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, argue that it has already become a threat to our jobs, and that the “jobless recovery" following the recent recession could be a sign that artificial intelligence is now reaching the point where it is taking over many human jobs.
The bottom line is that in the near future you may find yourself competing not only against other human beings but against machines as well. This means that you must become more nimble than ever, constantly expanding your skills and gaining the training that you will need to compete in a rapidly-changing world.
In other words, you should view your education at Berea College as not an end, but just a beginning.
All photos taken by Timothy Arends while a student at Berea College.
Images of Berea College
Berea College 2012 [Kindle Edition]
© 2014 Timothy Arends