Customer award programs and differential pricing give airline passengers a range of ticket categories. First-class and frequent flyers, of course, get the best treatment and the deepest sense of belonging. At the other extreme, Zone 3 ticket holders are treated as second- or third-class passengers and likely feel neither appreciation nor belonging. It is unfortunate that this metaphor easily applies to higher education. Ideally, all students should feel as if they come to college with a first-class ticket in hand, no matter their socioeconomic class, race, gender, or any other identifying characteristic, but in reality, many are left feeling that they do not really belong in the institution that admitted them.
Belonging was a key concept when Berea College was founded in 1855, in a slaveholding state, by ardent abolitionists and radical reformers expressly to educate female and male, and black and white, students together. As such, it became the South’s first interracial and coeducational college. That was bold in 1855, but the need continues today, because while potential is universal, opportunity is not. Consider, for example, that national degree-completion rates for students from the lowest income cohort (less than $34,000) have only increased by three percentage points since 1970—from 6 to 9 percent—compared to large increases among the wealthiest students. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “To deny education to any people is one of the greatest crimes against human nature.”
Because the Berea community believes that students’ incomes should not dictate their outcomes, the college stopped charging tuition about 125 years ago and requires its 1,600 students to meet financial eligibility requirements. Consequently, 98 percent of domestic students are Pell Grant eligible, and Berea’s 120 international students—hailing from countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe—would also qualify if non-citizens were eligible for Pell Grants. Almost 40 percent of students are of color, and Berea welcomes students from forty-five states and seventy countries. Fifty-seven percent of its 2016 entering class had an expected family contribution of $0, and the average student comes from a family of four with annual income of less than $28,000; therefore, the typical entering student not only pays no tuition, but is responsible only for a little more than $1,000 for housing, meals, and fees for the year.
Place, race, class, and/or gender are among the most common intersectionalities of all Berea students, and Berea’s mission, manifest in the college’s eight Great Commitments, is key to the college’s work to enhance students’ well-being at Berea and after graduation. Berea’s Great Commitments are:
- To provide an educational opportunity primarily for students from Appalachia, black and white, who have great promise and limited economic resources.
- To provide an education of high quality with a liberal arts foundation and outlook.
- To stimulate understanding of the Christian faith and its many expressions and to emphasize the Christian ethic and the motive of service to others.
- To provide for all students through the labor program experiences for learning and serving in community, and to demonstrate that labor, mental and manual, has dignity as well as utility.
- To assert the kinship of all people and to provide interracial education with a particular emphasis on understanding and equality among blacks and whites.
- To create a democratic community dedicated to education and equality for women and men.
- To maintain a residential campus and to encourage in all members of the community a way of life characterized by plain living, pride in labor well done, zest for learning, high personal standards, and concern for the welfare of others.
- To serve the Appalachian region primarily through education but also by other appropriate services.
What are the practical ways of serving the underserved and realizing such a mission? First, of course, we must hire faculty and staff who are eager to support the mission. As one of seven federally recognized Work Colleges, all students work ten to twelve hours a week on campus, supervised by many staff and faculty. Bereans believe there is dignity in all labor—mental as well as manual—and there is also an important learning dimension to labor. For this reason, staff are known as General Faculty, and teaching faculty are referred to as College Faculty. All employees have obligations regarding learning, student success, and well-being. First-year students in our work program earn a salary of about $1,500 during the academic year, which in many cases can help pay the cost of housing and meals, preventing borrowing. Some students return a portion of these earnings to their families for utilities or food; more than half even give a portion of these earnings back to the college through payroll deduction. Already, they are paying forward their educational opportunity by engaging in philanthropy.
We often think metaphorically about our educational work, dividing it into the bridge in, the bridge through, and the bridge out. For example, as part of the work to bridge high school and college, we house visiting students and families in a comfortable, residential facility free of charge so a campus visit is economically possible. A summer Berea Bridge program for sixty new students, chosen by lottery, prepares these students for engaged learning and embeds leadership and engagement in the first-year class; first-to-second year retention of these Berea Bridge students is currently 93 percent. A family engagement counselor works closely with prospective students and families in order to alleviate financial concerns and begin financial aid verification.
The “bridge through” efforts ensure that retention and graduation rates are high. Berea’s overall first-to-second-year retention rate, at 86 percent last year and 84 percent this year, is remarkable for the population it serves. Faculty and staff, of course, are committed advisors and mentors. More than 40 percent of Berea students study abroad because the institution heavily subsidizes opportunities to make it possible. Free medical and counseling services further facilitate whole-person education, and this academic year the college has opened a free dental clinic for students since many have never had such care. In 2012, Berea built a green residence hall, earning Living Building Challenge Petal Certification, and created a quality enhancement plan (a plan developed to improve student learning or the environment that supports student learning in a measurable way) that focuses on eight dimensions of wellness: emotional, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, spiritual, and sustainable.
Helping students design and construct their bridge out of Berea into the world is where our most intense focus has been. Our internship office facilitates 250 paid internships each year, allowing students to pursue their passions and interests unencumbered by financial constraints. Such internships are an invaluable way to assist students as they make their way into lives beyond Berea. A career development office also provides funds for professional clothing, test preparation, graduate school visits, and consultations.
Christian Osvaldo Flores represents the complexity of intersectionality and the effects of the bridge metaphor on student well-being. He is twenty-two, was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and was raised in Georgia when his family brought him to the United States for better opportunities. He’s undocumented, gay, first-generation, Mexican, and male. He’s also president of Berea’s Student Government Association.
“I automatically felt welcomed [here],” he said. “I didn’t know Berea was so open to differences, where people were interested in learning about hardships and identities, in my case being undocumented. With all my identities, there is someone else that I could relate to. So that makes me feel like part of the community. I can find myself in other people’s identities here, and I can grow as a result of learning about others.” He was part of the first Berea Bridge cohort, and he is benefitting from the bridges through and out.
While it does not feel very affirming to be the last to board a flight, living at the poverty line comes with many real difficulties. Berea’s students share pasts replete with marginalization, abuse, and injustice, but their resilience helps them transcend those disadvantages. Bereans work hard—students, faculty and staff together—over four years to facilitate a life of healing, wholeness, and satisfaction, bringing students from the periphery to the center and along the way helping them find their voice, their passion, their purpose, and (we hope) their version of the good life joined with service to the public good.
 Margaret Cahalan and Laura Perna, Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 45 Year Trend Report (The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and The University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy, 2015), http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_45_Year_Trend_Report.pdf.
 Frederick Douglass. An Oration. The Manassas Industrial School (Manassas, Virginia, 1894). http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mfd&fileName=49/49002/49002page.db&recNum=0&itemLink=/ammem/doughtml/dougFolder9.html&linkText=7.