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