As a senior in high school, I didn’t have a plan for going to college. None of my family members had gone, and it wasn’t something we discussed. I had no idea how to apply and did not even know how to think about the impact it would have on my future. I was on a more predictable path, given my background: I had gotten married the previous summer and was working at a fast-food restaurant while finishing high school.

I was a straight-A student, but I was also angry and lost, still reeling from a difficult childhood and a series of traumatic events that followed me into my teen years. Married at 17 and without any adults to set limits for me at home, I rebelled quietly, skipping a lot of school while also doing the work to make good grades. I argued with teachers about whether or not I should be able to do both of these things—miss so much school but still make good grades—and sometimes I argued that my poor attendance shouldn’t count against me when I could learn and understand the course work anyway.

I didn’t understand it at the time, but those debates with my teachers gave me a safe outlet to be defiant. As someone who couldn’t defend herself as a child, I was still resentful and suspicious of adults, and I tested boundaries when I found them. In the context of school, I was surrounded by adults who cared about my well-being and who tried to guide me in a healthy direction. Some of them knew I was struggling, even though I couldn’t articulate that myself. I was lucky so many of my teachers responded to me with kindness rather than exasperation, which is what I often feel when I think back to my 17-year-old self.

One of those teachers was Steve Thompson ’92, who taught art and tolerated a lot of my difficult behavior with unusual grace. Not long before I took the ACT, he pulled me aside and encouraged me to consider going to Berea College. On the day of the test, I wrote Berea’s code on the form so the school would receive my test results, even though I didn’t know whether I would go to college or not. Several months later, I got a phone call from the College admissions office, offering me one of the six spots they had left.

I had already decided to move to Berea after attending the Earth Roots Festival, which was largely organized by students who would soon become my friends. Now, I would also be going to college—something that had seemed so abstract. At the festival and then on campus, I felt more free to be myself than I ever had before. I formed a wide social network, and even though I still struggled in some ways, I flourished in my classes.

During my first year, I took philosophy courses as electives and found myself in the perfect position to debate ideas rather than my attendance (or lack thereof). I also quickly discovered I would have to attend classes and follow the rules to do well at Berea College, and several professors were generous enough to explain this without penalizing me for some early missteps. Once again, I benefitted from a host of educators who challenged my intellect while nurturing me as a student. I had a lot of personal growing and healing left to do, but I savored the classroom experience.

Dive Deeper

Cover of Bobi Conn's book IN the Shadow of the Valley

Bobi Conn’s memoir, “In the Shadow of the Valley,” is an elegiac account of survival despite being born poor, female and cloistered. Conn grew up in a remote Kentucky holler in the 1980s and 1990s, where she endured the violence of her alcoholic father by finding solace in the natural beauty that surrounded her hellish childhood home. Conn’s testament is one of hope for all vulnerable populations, particularly women and girls caught in the cycle of poverty and abuse. On a continual path to worth, autonomy and reinvention, Conn proves “the storyteller is the one with power.” Find it on Amazon.

I graduated from Berea with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, but it would take more time for me to fully find my way. Like many people from dysfunctional homes, I struggled to create stability in my life, even as an adult. However, unlike most people from dysfunctional homes, I entered into my young adulthood with a prestigious college degree and no debt. So, a few years later, when I realized I wanted to be a writer, I was poised to attend graduate school and begin that journey.

Looking back now, I’m amazed at what a chance happening it was that I attended Berea College. If it were not for Mr. Thompson, I wouldn’t have known about the school, and I’m not sure I would have gone to any college. Even if I had opted to attend the local university where I grew up, Berea provided me the exact kind of environment I needed to succeed, and I wouldn’t have gotten that elsewhere. Just a few years after graduating, I got my master’s degree in English and launched both my professional and creative careers.

When I went to Berea College, I wasn’t prepared to take care of myself or make good decisions, even though I had been pretending to be an adult. Both the institution and a large number of professors—some of whom are my friends now—helped create a foundation for the rest of my life, which smoothed the path once I began to find my way. Because of Berea College and the many people who dedicate themselves to its mission, I am able to give my children not just a better life, but a life unlike anything I once could have imagined. I am able to give back to and help enrich our beloved Appalachia through my stories. Perhaps most importantly, I was empowered with a vision of who I could become, and then given the chance to achieve that dream.

Portrait of Bobi Conn sitting in a window in Draper

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Judy Harwood
Judy Harwood
1 year ago

Powerful story, repeated many times among Berea students and graduates.

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