Her dorm room at Pearson’s Hall was the nicest place Kayla Kinker ’11 had ever lived. As a teen in Covington, Ky., Kinker and her mother had no home to call their own. They stayed on couches in the homes of family members and friends. Kayla would not have a semi-permanent place to stay until her senior year in high school, when she moved into The Welcome House, a shelter for women and children, alone.
“It sounds kind of awful,” Kinker admitted, “but it was really a blessing. They were really good to me there, and it was the first time I had a reliable place.”
Many of us may take for granted simple things like electricity or clean clothes to wear, but not Kinker.
“We never had a washer and dryer or a car to go to the laundromat,” she said. “The Welcome House was a big relief for me. They had a washer and dryer there. They provided meals and even bus passes so I could get to and from work without difficulty.”
Despite her circumstances, Kinker excelled academically and socially. She was at the top of her class, enrolled in the prestigious and difficult International Baccalaureate Program. She cheered, did chorus and theater. Nonetheless, before coming to live at the shelter, she considered withdrawing from school to work. Thankfully, someone at the time had taken a keen interest in her success.
“I had a case worker who would meet me at the high school or the shelter, and we would go over college applications, my work schedule and my obligations,” Kinker said. “For the first time in my life, someone was keeping track of where I was at any given time. She made sure I applied to Berea.”
Berea, too, became one of the only steady situations in Kinker’s life. She moved into a residence hall, majored in biology and continued her cheering career. Even in the summers, when her residency status would inevitably become shaky again, Berea provided constructive opportunities. The summer following her freshman year, Kinker landed a summer research internship with the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network at the University of Kentucky. Berea assisted with her summer living expenses on UK’s campus while she participated in the program. Kinker researched DNA integrity, and the following semester, she presented her research at the Kentucky Academy of Sciences.
She continued the pattern of finding summer opportunities for the rest of her college career. The summer following her sophomore year, again with Berea’s assistance, she joined cell biology researchers at Vanderbilt University. Again she presented at the Kentucky Academy of Sciences and won first place for her oral presentation.
“This was all thanks to Berea,” Kinker said. “I don’t think I could have gotten into the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy without Berea’s connection to the program.”
Berea’s connection was through alumnus and Berea College Trustee Dr. Hal Moses, the director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. Kinker found herself among students from elite institutions like Harvard. A similar situation followed for her final summer research stint at the Mayo Clinic, where she and more affluent students from Ivy League schools joined Berea alumnus Dr. David Carbone, who ran a lab there.
“This was the first time I had my own animal model, which was an incredible opportunity,” Kinker said.
Again, she presented her research, and again she won first place in oral presentation. Kinker attributes her presentation skills to her Berea labor position as a biology teaching assistant.
“When I graduated, that strong research background helped me get my first job at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.”
At Cincinnati Children’s, Kinker worked in immunology while her new husband, Dominic Suma ’11, worked on his master’s degree. Two years later, both Kayla and Dominic matriculated at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. Together, they joined the medical school’s Rural Physician Leadership Program, where students spend their clinical years at different rural hospitals across the state.
“I couldn’t have done any of this without Berea’s help,” Kinker said. “If I had gone somewhere else, I may have done a year or two of school and left because there’s no way anybody could have supported me the way Berea did.”
She also credits the people who encouraged her growing up. “People told me I could do anything I wanted, and I believed them,” Kinker reminisced. “Maybe I was naïve as a child, but it’s true that people have been very supportive and have done whatever they could to ease my burden. Even though I didn’t have a lot of financial support growing up, and though my mom had to work a lot and wasn’t there physically, I’ve had a lot of support from teachers and others.”
Kinker suggested the support she received from Berea helped level the playing field at places where more affluent students had the parental and financial support she could only dream of. And because, during the academic year, she was enrolled among other economically disadvantaged students, she never felt out of place.
“At Berea, we’re all coming from difficult financial backgrounds,” she said, “so there never was the sensation that ‘of course you got an A on the test because you didn’t have to work this week.’”
Today, Kinker is the resident physician in the field of obstetrics and gynecology at Memorial Health in Savannah, Ga. Her choice of medical field was influenced by her time at The Welcome House.
“After living in the shelter for a year, I came to realize how much women’s health impacts where they are in society,” she said. “A lot of women had accidental pregnancies or weren’t able to work because of complications of pregnancy. Just to see how much that impacts their ability to provide for their family and how society treats them made me want to be an advocate for women’s health and a caregiver to them.”