Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sierra N. Turner ’19 was accustomed to a highly diverse environment. It was uncommon to make assumptions about an individual’s race based on superficial things like language, skin color or external presentation. Even more so, it wasn’t a pressing issue to classify each other at all.

“I knew I was Black, but at the same time, I had no idea the weight and significance of my race,” Turner said.

While Turner appreciated the multicultural climate of Berea when choosing a school, what really drew her in was the way she felt about being on campus. “I visited Berea four times before I committed because I wanted to make sure I was making the right choice,” Turner said. “Every time I came back, it felt like home.”

After Turner joined the Berea family in 2015, she chose to create a major in health studies, a program she helped pioneer. She combined her interest in holistic wellness as an independent major with a minor in Spanish—a skill she would capitalize on later.

Turner says although she has benefited greatly from moving through higher education with little-to-no debt, it was the faculty who ended up transforming her Berea experience. 

Portrait of Sierra Turner

“Shortly after I began my freshman year, my father died,” Turner recalled. “Suddenly, I was dealing with this enormous amount of grief I didn’t know how to process, and I was taking five classes, most of which were science- based.”

Understandably, Turner’s performance in the classroom deteriorated as she struggled with her new reality. She attempted to drop a class to lighten her course load and was surprised by the unusual response she received from the College.

“I dropped the class and literally got a call from my professor [Dr. Jackie Burnside] that I wasn’t dropping the class. I didn’t understand, and she told me ‘I know you’re hurting, but I really believe you can do this.’”

While the loss of her father was a tragically life-altering event for Turner, it also was a moment where she felt the warmth of Berea as all the supports around her moved from the ground up. Professors mentored her and the College provided a counselor who could meet with her outside of normal working hours to fit her schedule. Berea did not let Turner forget the promise she showed and held her accountable for living up to it.

“In both counseling and through my relationship with faculty at Berea, I was mentored by so many strong, Black individuals who really strengthened that part of my identity,” Turner said. “Even in death and dying, there are cultural differences in the way we move through grief.”

Despite a rocky start to her collegiate experience, Turner was wildly successful in the field of health studies and even published research as an undergraduate. She presented a paper at the American Public Health Association Conference (APHA), a national conference for professional development in public health. As her time at Berea drew to a close, Turner knew the “free” part of Berea was just icing on the cake.

Free means a lot in the world of education but the people meant so much more. As I walked down the aisle at graduation, and it was lined by faculty on each side, I realized who really made me. It was them all along.

Sierra Turner ’19

“Free means a lot in the world of education,” she said, “but the people meant so much more. As I walked down the aisle at graduation, and it was lined by faculty on each side, I realized who really made me. It was them all along.”

After graduation, Turner went to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she earned her master’s degree in public health with a concentration in community health education. Not even halfway through her program, COVID-19 hit the U.S., and classes became remote.

“I guess I technically graduated while living outside of the country, because I just elected to continue doing it online and travel while finishing,” Turner said.

Turner is now a bilingual health educator and academic coach living in Israel and the founder of Bridging Gaps, a global teaching agency dedicated to enhancing and unlocking a learner’s desired potential. The agency offers everything from Spanish-language immersion at any level to academic leadership and statistics coaching.

“Berea was about the people for me,” Turner explained. “It helped prepare me for the real world in teaching me my identity as a Black woman and the power I could harness because of that truth. It makes me cry to think about it; Berea is special because everyone here has burdens, but everyone helps each other carry them.”

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