“Berea found me,” remembers Ariel Owens Williams ’14. Williams grew up and lived in Hawaii, but her father moved them to Kentucky for a short period of time before returning to Hawaii. She says a piece of mail from Berea College followed her back—inviting her to apply for a full-tuition scholarship and a chance at a college education and a better future. Thinking a school like Berea was too good to be true, Williams called random campus numbers, speaking briefly with people all over campus until she was sufficiently sure the College was real and made up of live and friendly people.
President Lyle Roelofs reflects back on meeting Williams in his first year at Berea College and learning of her story. “Ariel helped Laurie and me understand the reality of so many Berea students, students who richly deserved the opportunity of an education that they could not afford. She was special to us because she was cagey enough to worry that Berea was too good to be true, and then found the perfect way to assure herself that Berea was not only good but true!”
Life in Hawaii was surrounded by beauty but full of difficulty, and Williams thought it worth the chance to venture back across the Pacific to attend this small college with a big promise. The girl who had never had her own room or bed in which to sleep was assigned to work at Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant.
“I had always been interested in hospitality,” she said. “I was interested in being able to work in a place that allowed me to make sure people had a good experience, found comfort and had the opportunity to have a beautiful place to sleep.”
In addition to her labor position, Williams applied to work for phone-a-thon to earn some additional money to be able to go back to Hawaii and see her family, while also getting the opportunity to thank those responsible for helping provide her a tuition-free education. In her application, she wrote:
“In my opinion, Berea College is not just a good school—it’s an excellent academic institution. For many students throughout America and the world, Berea College is a beacon of light in the midst of their dark situation. Speaking for myself, by virtue of being at Berea I have already conquered what theoretically or statistically was supposed to conquer me. Furthermore, like many students who attend Berea College, I came from a low-income family, attended a mediocre public school, lived on the ‘bad’ side of town and depended on government assistance. Berea allows students to have a fighting chance against a world that has already summed us up to be worthless. Without Berea, I honestly don’t know where I would have ended up.”
Nine years later, Berea’s light has illuminated Williams’ life. She went on to earn her master’s degree in business administration from Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., where she also works assisting students with financial planning. She met her husband in 2019 and the two were married at Boone Tavern in 2021. They recently welcomed their first child.
“At this point in my life, earning my MBA solidifies how much education means to me,” Williams said. “We are trying to make decisions that allow us to set a firm foundation, and having the financial ability to provide for our family is important. As a new mom, I’m focused on figuring out a new routine in my life. For now, I feel like I’m where I need to be.
“For me, the biggest thing is to be open to the change and experiences Berea can give,” Williams continued, speaking directly to current students. “Not being from the city, I could have remained the quiet kid I was when I arrived [at Berea]. I would have been stuck in my room in a bubble and robbed myself of the experiences Berea could give. But forcing myself out, I built relationships that will last a lifetime. It allowed me to see the world—I got to travel outside of Berea, which is something I wouldn’t have done if professors and counselors wouldn’t have pushed me.”
Reflecting back, Williams has watched her journey come full circle. “I just have wonderful memories—Berea was a guiding light for me.”