In 2009, Jamie Nunnery Oleka ’13 arrived in Berea full of promise, excitement and a little shock that she was beginning her college journey. Her family had driven the 97 miles that separated Berea from her hometown of West Liberty, Ky. With a population of a little more than 3,400 at the time, this quaint town with its close-knit community in the heart of eastern Kentucky had been Oleka’s security her whole life. And as a first-generation college student, she was stepping into unknown territory to pursue a much-desired education.
Oleka’s mother immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, and her father grew up in eastern Kentucky. “Both of them really stressed the importance of education,” she said. “In fact, to them, they made it seem like education was the closest thing to magic as far as ending generational poverty and really having more opportunities in life.
“So, I knew growing up that I wanted to go to college and that education was a key lever in giving me opportunities in life, and Berea was able to do that for me,” Oleka continued.
She originally wanted to go to the University of Kentucky. But when she joyfully told her parents UK had accepted her, she was told, “We’re not going to be able to do that because we can’t afford it,” Oleka recalls. So, when a family member told her about Berea College and its tuition-free promise, she set up a visit. She fell in love with the campus, and the small community was reminiscent of home.
“When I went into it, I knew I wanted to go to Berea because it was free,” Oleka said. “All of the other factors of it being a quality education and a small, tight-knit community—all of those pieces strengthened my decision to go to Berea College.”
She studied hard and was top of her class in high school, yet when Oleka transitioned to Berea, she found an academic rigor and level of expectation for which she was not prepared.
“A lot of the reason I struggled in college was because of educational inequity that I faced in West Liberty,” she said. “Growing up in a low-income background, I didn’t necessarily receive a quality education. Though I graduated top of my class, when I got into my first basic Biology 101 course, I realized I was really, really behind.”
Oleka found she had not been adequately prepared with study skills or how to seek out help from professors and teaching assistants. At one point, she nearly dropped out altogether. But because of the support she received from College faculty and, especially, her labor supervisors, Oleka overcame these challenges and successfully completed an independent major in health sciences in 2013.
“When I think about students who may come from rural communities or even urban communities and they aren’t able to access quality education, that is a rock and a hurdle for them being able to end generational poverty for their own families,” she said. “Folks not being able to get a quality education is really like closing the door on them being able to reach their fullest potential.”
These realizations led Oleka to rethink the direction in which she took her career. She had been accepted to the Peace Corps, but a meeting with a Teach for America recruiter steered her toward teaching, emphasizing that she would be a really great teacher—because of her story, she would relate to children across the country from similar circumstances.
Oleka was involved with Teach for America for approximately six years, serving in Mississippi, South Carolina, and various places in Appalachia. She then taught middle and high school before serving for a year as principal at Nativity Academy at St. Boniface in Louisville, Ky. She also went on to earn a master of education in instructional accommodations from Marion University; a master of arts in teaching and secondary education from the University of Louisville; and an education specialist degree in educational administration, educational leadership and administration from Louisville.
Today, Oleka is back with Teach for America, serving as managing director of The Collective, focused on community and coalition building.
Oleka says Berea’s entire admissions process is focused on selecting not just qualifying low-income students but on students who show promise in every area of their lives. “They actually interview you so they can get to know your story and if you are a good fit for Berea College,” she said. “Meaning, if we give you the opportunity, if we give you this free-tuition opportunity, what will you make of it? Can we see something within you, your story and character that shows that this is something you will take advantage of and that could set you up on a different life path?”
Oleka also credits Berea’s work program for much of her life and career success. While at Berea, she worked in Academic Services, served as a resident assistant and volunteered with the Adopt-a-Grandparent program, which led to her involvement in the Bonner Scholars program. As a Bonner Scholar, she spent a summer of service abroad at Space Camp Turkey in a small town near Ephesus. And her last semester, she added a position with Berea’s Admissions office.
“I realized when I was competing against other folks trying to get a job immediately after college, I had a full résumé with a lot of experience,” Oleka said. “I had managers who could speak on my behalf. All of my labor super-
visors at Berea took the time to get to know me as an individual, and, looking back on it, they invested in me more than just being an employee.
“Without Berea,” she added, “I would not have been able to pursue a career focused on my passions.”