Rhea Carter ’20 is still in shock. The communication major from a little place called Gray, in Knox County, Ky., was invited to a round-table discussion with none other than former President Barack Obama to talk about her experience as a first-generation college graduate who is now in public service. This is a tale of how that came about.
Though her family was low-income, Carter was bound for college. The valedictorian and Governor’s Scholar had options thanks to a stellar academic and service career in high school, but none of the scholarships she was offered covered everything. Her guidance counselor thought she’d be a perfect fit for Berea College.
“So, I toured Berea,” she said, “and I fell in love with the campus and the people. I loved the environment, the vibes, the students, the professors, and the cherry on top was to be tailored toward that low-income experience—not having the stress of not having the newest shoes or the newest car. I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be and that everyone else had that sort of similar life experience.”
Carter received the Pinnacle Scholar Award of Excellence and joined other talented students in the Berea Bridge program, which allowed her to get better acclimated to college life the summer before her first year, an experience that cemented her love for her chosen school.
In her first semester, Carter was placed in a class focusing on Appalachian representation in film with Professor Silas House. They focused on movies like “Deliverance,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The Dollmaker,” diving into critical analysis of how rural and Appalachian people are depicted in the media. The class was so impactful, Carter added a double minor in Appalachian studies and peace and social justice.
“Having so many great professors around me who were from the same area that I was from—successful people who also cared about their home and wanted to give back to their home region—was really inspiring for me,” she said.
For her labor position, Carter was placed in Craft Education Outreach, and the next year she went on to take a position reviewing submissions to the Appalachian Review, Berea College’s literary magazine. She says it was a great complement to her Appalachian studies minor.
“I became more confident in my perception of art and poetry and writing,” she said, “but also Appalachian representation, knowing when something is hitting the mark and when something is maybe a little bit over the top. That was a such a cool experience. I’m so happy that I was able to work there.”
Carter took advantage of all the College had to offer, including a “bucket-list trip” to Greece for six weeks of studying mythology abroad. She had grown up interested in Greek mythology because of her name, which is pronounced REE-AH. Rhea (pronounced RAY-AH in Greece) is the mother of the five eldest Olympian gods. Study-abroad funds available to Berea students paid for most of the trip.
“My only student loan is from studying abroad,” she said, “and that’s the ultimate testament to the opportunity that Berea provides someone—a debt-free life after college.”
The following year, with the help of the Office of Internships and Career Development, Carter spent the summer in North Carolina, interning with the Partnership for Appalachian Girls’ Education. As her senior year progressed and she worked on her capstone focusing on Appalachian representation in media, Carter was also preparing for the professional world that awaited her after college.
“[The Office of Internships and Career Development] gave me funding for professional clothing, so I bought my first suit,” Carter revealed. “They had a tour bus that took us up to Lexington to Macy’s. It’s just the most support you could have.”
Graduating in 2020 meant having her final semester cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, when the College sent students home. Carter went home to rural Knox County, where she finished her degree on a College-provided Wi-Fi “hot spot” due to her parents’ lack of internet connectivity.
Landing a job would have been difficult during a national crisis, but she impressed the folks in Berea College Admissions and was able to get a job with BereaCorps. BereaCorps is a grant-funded program that provides recent Berea graduates the opportunity to work in staff positions at the College to gain professional experience. (Learn more about BereaCorps.)
Through her BereaCorps position, Carter attended monthly professional development workshops that included topics like Microsoft Excel and doing taxes. She also had access to professional development funding, which she used to get a certificate in grant writing from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
When she graduated from the “Berea bubble,” as she and others have called it, she looked out into the world and asked herself some important questions. “Okay, here’s the real world again,” she said. “What needs to be fixed? What can I work on? How can I give back?”
She found that opportunity to give back at Partners for Rural Impact (PRI), formerly Partners for Education (PFE), in a position she calls her dream job as a Lead for America Fellow working on broadband access in Appalachia. There are 50 Lead for America Fellows across the United States and five in Kentucky. Funded by Land of Lakes, Carter helps people sign up for a broadband internet subsidy provided by the federal Affordable Connectivity Program.
“I think throughout the pandemic, it was obvious to everyone how necessary internet connection is to someone’s success in this world,” Carter said.
Next came “the experience of a lifetime.” PFE and Education Forward Arizona hosted the Rural College Access and Success Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz. The event caught the attention of the Obama Foundation, which had partnered with Airbnb to introduce the Voyager Scholarship. Carter was flown out to participate in a roundtable discussion with President Obama and Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.
“I’m still in shock that that even happened to me,” she said. “They were so polite and warm, and everything you hear about President Obama is true. He’s just so present and welcoming. I was so honored to represent Berea and talk about all of the amazing things that Berea can do for students and how that should be emulated by other colleges and universities.”
Carter credits Berea College with preparing her for big moments like that one and for her sense of purpose.
“I don’t think I would be who I am today if it hadn’t been for Berea,” she said. “Because of Berea, I have purpose. Berea gave me passion and a foundation to make change.”