In Appalachia, a Road Trip for Faculty Makes a Difference

For over 50 years, Berea College has put its employees on a bus tour that will teach them about the communities they serve, and challenge stereotypes about Appalachian life.
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Images of Appalachia, from coal mines to the Highlander Center (AP)

There may be nothing like it anywhere else in higher education--but given the results, perhaps there should be. For over 50 summers, while other colleges have focused on getting students oriented to campus, Berea College in Kentucky has taken faculty and staff on an extended bus tour to get them oriented to their students and region. The tour, which originally just ran through the eastern part of the state, now spends five days in a swathe of Appalachia, the area from which most Berea students come and which Americans tend to see in terms of poverty, a homogeneous white population, backward ways, old-time music, and other entrenched stereotypes. Faculty and staff board the bus after a two-day campus seminar on Appalachia and travel through eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, West Virginia, and east Tennessee.

"It's not a poverty tour through the glass of an air-conditioned coach," says Chad Berry, Berea's academic vice president and dean of faculty, who has led the last four tours. "I'm trying to challenge people's preconceptions about arguably the most misunderstood region in United States."

The tour reflects Berea's longstanding commitment to Appalachia, and aims to help Berea personnel understand the Appalachian region and where their students are coming from, literally and figuratively. About 60 percent of the college's 1,600 students come from Appalachia. Nearly all its students are low income and pay no tuition. They must help with other costs by doing paid work at the college10 to 15 hours a week. The college also aids the region directly, for example through its Grow Appalachia program, which teaches 500 families at 15 sites to grow, share, and preserve healthful food, and the Brushy Fork Institute, which offers leadership training, organizational development workshops, and technical assistance to mountain communities

The tour is part of a concerted effort at Berea to reach Appalachian, poor, and African American students and help them succeed. It's "the start of the faculty and staff's work to de-educate the assumptions about Appalachia that are rife in our culture," says Appalachian Center director Chris Green. Pointing to the college's graduation rate, Green adds, "Clearly, Berea is doing something right." A 2011 study ranked Berea fourth in the nation among liberal arts colleges in actual-versus-predicted graduation rates. The study noted that given their academic credentials and other factors, 50 percent of Berea students would be expected to graduate, but nearly 65 percent actually do. By contrast, the latest graduation rate for students from economically distressed Kentucky counties who attend Kentucky state universities is 41 percent.

Since Berea students come from the least wealthy quartile of those attending college nationwide, the college's exceptional graduation rate makes it an engine of upward mobility. In 2011, the Washington Monthly rated Berea the top liberal arts college in advancing such mobility (as well as the best such college overall). The tour is crucial in preparing faculty and staff to work with this distinctive population.

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I was invited along the tour last summer. We stopped at small towns (two struggling, one thriving), a historic settlement school in the mountains, a family homeplace, two churches (one white fundamentalist, one African- American), a famous media and education center called Appalshop, and a museum to a historic civil rights struggle in Clinton, Tennessee. We visited a historic log cabin belonging to Frontier Nursing University, heir of the renowned Frontier Nursing Service, which once sent nurses on horseback into the hollows. We spent an evening at the legendary Highlander Research and Education Center, which played a key role in advancing the southern labor and Civil Rights movements. The itinerary was packed, the pace fast. On the bus in between some stops we watched two educational films on the bus about the region and listened to a radio program.

We couldn't visit the site, but an 85-year old man told us about living next to a mountaintop removal coal mining operation. We had a close look at a vast organic farm. We talked to the people we met in these places and took home-cooked meals--of memorable proportions- with some of them. Much of what we saw and heard raised sensitive issues about Appalachia--cultural, racial, economic, historical--and back on the bus Berry led discussions of them over the dull roar of the highway. We talked again at Highlander and after the trip.

The tour had its drawbacks: It stopped in no big cities, omitting the urban side of Appalachia, though a number of Berea students come from cities like Knoxville and Birmingham. Tour members questioned the relevance of some places we did stop. And due to the tight schedule, we left one church suddenly, just as we were starting to converse one on one with men in the congregation, who had lined up to meet us.

Most of those on the bus had been at Berea fewer than three years and several just a matter of months. But judging from the people I interviewed who had taken the tour in previous years, even those who have taught at Berea much longer find the tour eye-opening.

Assistant Professor of Education Althea Webb grew up in western Kentucky only a couple hundred miles from Appalachia. She knew little about the region beyond the stereotypes. When she went on the tour in 2007, she found the culture mind boggling. "I'd never been up a mountain," she said. "I really didn't understand why people loved the mountains. To me, it's something you'd look at."

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Peter Slavin is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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