In a world still healing from a pandemic, when people were forced to isolate from each other and social media seemed to shrink attention spans, President Cheryl Nixon feels like a disruptive force. She listens intently and proclaims the transformative powers of community. Through her Affirming the Heart of Berea Listening, Learning and Building Community Tour scheduled across the entire Fall 2023 semester, President Nixon sought to understand Berea’s community intimately and to bring people together in the process.

“You wouldn’t guess it now, but I was a shy person when I started college,” Nixon said. “I was afraid of people criticizing me. Later, I realized it is a good thing to be challenged.”

College Forester Clint Patterson shows President Cheryl Nixon some information about the College forest
College Forester Clint Patterson (left) shows President Cheryl Nixon some information about the College forest during a listening and networking session at the President’s House with other members of the Administrative Leadership Council. Photo by Crystal Wylie ’05

Spaces that allowed her to speak freely and receive feedback helped her overcome her reservations. Now, she wants to make students feel like they are in the center, that they can be creators. During her career as an educator, Nixon was a conduit for the creative power of discussions and witnessed how students made ideas together in a liberal arts classroom. Taking those ideals outside of the classroom, she aspires to harness the Berea community’s ideation prowess to integrate and improve all elements of student life while students are on campus and after they leave.

Nixon envisioned her listening tour as a space where all students, faculty and staff could collaborate and share ideas. She conducted big group discussions where people could write their ideas on poster paper and share them with each other. She had in-depth and confidential conversations with small groups representing specific student, staff and faculty populations, ensuring people had candid ways of expressing themselves. Nixon wanted to hear all that they had to say: what they love about Berea, where Berea needs to improve, and out-of-the-box ideas that will make Berea stand out.

“Someone told me that they envisioned a cable car, a gondola, that went from campus to the Pinnacles. They are right in the sense that we need to create more opportunities for people to spend time at the Pinnacles and out in our beautiful nature,” Dr. Nixon said.

Group of alums sit around a round table at Boone Tavern.
During Homecoming weekend, alumni were invited to a listening session with the president to give their ideas and feedback on the same areas as staff, faculty and students addressed. Groups like this one involved alumni from a wide range of class years and backgrounds to make their feedback well rounded. Photo by Crystal Wylie ’05

She organized ice cream socials, roundtable discussions, met students in several informal settings, and invited Bereans to dinner at her home to gather ideas. Berea was founded on ideals that challenged the status quo of that time to create a pathway for interracial education against all odds. President Nixon believes it is time for today’s students to decide which new challenges Berea will address and overcome.

The interactions that impacted the community the most took place at the President’s House. Each time a student knocked on her door, Nixon answered to receive them herself.

“It is really important that she opened that door,” said Sabrina ’23. “It made me feel like it will be open anytime I need it.”

Group of people gathered around a round table while President Cheryl Nixon speaks.
During the president’s Listening, Learning and Building Community Tour sessions, table groups were given a broad topic area and asked to brainstorm ideas about how to address issues, create change, promote community and celebrate the areas where Berea was already doing well. Photo by Crystal Wylie ’05

As a senior graduating in December, Sabrina had many things to share about her beloved Berea. She was delighted when President Nixon listened intently, recognizing the value of Sabrina’s four years of lived campus experience.

“I was a student chaplain for about three and a half years,” Sabrina said. “A lot of what I wanted to mention was about the Christian identity of the school, and she seemed very invested. We talked about how the Campus Christian Center can integrate with other departments on campus and become more accessible as a resource for students.”

Nixon had asked her guests what they wanted for dinner in advance. Milan ’24 requested Chicken Tikka Masala, one of his favorite dishes. After she showed them in, she went to the kitchen to prepare to serve the meals while letting the students wander and explore her residence. She is open to making her own space available to students.

“She is disruptive,” Milan said. “During the opening convocation, when she spoke to the entire campus for the first time, she made us take time to appreciate the community that we have with each other. She is the first female president of Berea, and she wants to overcome barriers of bureaucracy and authority to become a true Berean. She is an open and committed person.”

Picture of a poster board with notes from listening tour.
Photo by Crystal Wylie ’05

Milan talked to the College president about increasing access to transportation for students without cars and about improving Berea students’ access to healthcare. Conversations with President Nixon always involves constructively searching for solutions, some of which have already been implemented. Starting earlier this spring, Berea began providing shuttles to take students to local markets in Lexington.

Over a table laden with homemade bread and cakes, Benjamin ’25 also shared his vision for Berea with Nixon. He spoke about the intersecting identities of being white and South American Latino in Berea. Dr. Nixon listened with curiosity and made efforts to learn about the unique experiences of students like Benjamin.

“There are fewer than 30 students on campus who share this identity. But her willingness to listen to us makes us feel validated, that we are valuable. She has also promised to attend our events where we share our culture with the campus. This is very important to signal a wider cultural change on campus.”

Benjamin hopes that President Nixon will conduct sessions similar to the listening tour every couple of years.

Nixon seeks to discover the needs and the aspirations of the Berea community. She wants to know what needs to get done immediately as well as set goals together to achieve greater things. She wants to become a conduit for the community’s vision to propel Berea forward.

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