A first generation college student whose mother or grandmother had taught her to weave could at one time trade a handmade coverlet for tuition in rural Kentucky. The sturdy, background of warp threads has long been in place. Over time, the colorful weft threads have been woven back and forth, in intricate patterns, sometimes undone and worked through again.
Such is the history of the modest campus in rural Kentucky where abolitionist John G. Fee sought to welcome students of all colors and genders. As Berea College describes itself in its statement of Christian identity, it interprets the gospel as “impartial love” and it stood for equality in pre-Civil War times, “in a day when such equality was not supported in most Christian communities in Kentucky and much of the United States.” Although historians show even this city on a hill went through a dimmer time of state-forced segregation in the early 1900s, the modern campus is once again a model of equality in education.
Berea expresses a Christian identity so inclusive that it does not hold ties to any particular sectarian religion. Students are no longer required to attend specific chapel service, although opportunities for worship are all around. Part of the early Christian calling for Berea was to offer higher education tuition-free. “Berea College has never waivered from making a college education available to students who could not afford it,” explains Tim Glotzbach, who directs the Student Crafts Program. His is one of several labor programs where full-time students are required to work additional hours on campus. The crafts program has been around nearly as long as the college itself, because early leaders wanted to preserve Appalachian craft heritage. Academic standards are high at this college where students can obtain a wide range of liberal arts degrees. Yet, a Berea College education is not attainable for everyone, because parents can’t simply write a check for tuition. The college deliberately serves the underprivileged from Appalachia and elsewhere in the world.
On a recent visit to the campus south of Lexington, I met Cassidy Franklin-Dutton from Kentucky, Esther Stuass from Ohio and Juan Carlos Hernandez from Alabama. They are pursuing three different majors, with only one tied to the arts. Yet all three are learning valuable life skills in their labor assignments. Serious students, they all share a concern for community. Hernandez is pursuing volunteer work before law school. Franklin-Dutton works with other students in overseeing how they collaborate on crafts. Stauss explains why she’s happy to work in an office position while earning a child and family studies degree and take classes in still other subjects at the college, “It has a good basis of critical thinking, and it’s a liberal arts college…you get a broader view of life in general, you have to take different classes outside of your major and I think that helps you have a really good perspective on a lot of things.”
I asked Glotzbach how a mix of students that includes only a few art majors can find a good match with the enduring crafts program. He replied that some like business majors find a logical fit in some aspect of campus business, while others enjoy the contrast of the crafts with their academic studies. Instructors always listen to special requests from students applying to the labor programs. “We have some students in our weaving program that are mathematics majors and they understand patterns. They understand numbers. So when you talk about with them about a weave or about what they’re having to push on treadles on a loom and you say it’s a (pattern) of 1,4,3,2, 1,3,4,2, they remember that and they pick up on those patterns very easy. On the other hand, we have some pre-med majors who are in weaving because they like the solitude of sitting at a loom and just weaving. It’s a respite for them from other courses in anatomy and physiology or organic chemistry.”