Photo by Jennifer Lance ’20
Dr. Channell Barbour ’91 always had big plans. Whether it was dreaming of the bright lights and fame awaiting her in California or aspiring to be president of Berea College, her ambition has never been tethered. Barbour grew up a “misfit” in Oldham County, Ky. The youngest of nine children and an African American female in a predominantly white county school, her counselor told her she was not college material and should look instead at cosmetology school.
“But my parents told me I could go to college,” Barbour remembers.
Their belief gave her encouragement, but it took the help of then-Berea College recruiter Virgil Burnside to make it reality. Barbour’s family was familiar with Berea because her mother and oldest sister had attended the Lincoln InstiAtute, an all-black vocational school founded by Berea trustees after the Day Law forced racial segregation in Kentucky schools from 1904 to 1950.Burnside assured her mother that Berea had a support system that would help her accomplish her goal of earning a college degree.
“’If she doesn’t give up on herself, we won’t give up on her,’” Barbour recalls Burnside telling her mother. “My mother was so proud to have me come to Berea and graduate.”
Barbour went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration with plans to go to California, be an entertainment lawyer and make lots of money. But her mother had a prophetic vision that she would make a difference in people’s lives through education. And after years of working in state government, Barbour took a position at Indiana University Southeast, advising undecided first-year students and upperclassmen business majors.
“I remembered what Berea College did for me, and I wanted to give back,” Barbour said. “I truly wanted to be the catalyst for these students and help them understand there is hope.”
Her supervisor at IUSE encouraged Barbour to pursue her doctoral degree in higher education leadership, which she completed in 2014. In 2016, her connections to Berea through Burnside and Gus Gerassimides called her back to the College, as Barbour was hired to serve as the associate dean of Student Life. She was promoted to vice president for Student Life this summer after Burnside retired.
“I was excited my alma mater would entertain having me back,” she said. “With the struggles I went through, I knew someone appreciated me, and I have a mission here.”
Beyond helping create great student life experiences, Barbour’s mission extends to other ways of supporting students. She funds a scholarship specifically for political science students’ professional development. Last summer the scholarship supported a student’s internship at the United Nations. Giving back always has been a priority to Barbour. As a student, she gave $5 of every paycheck she earned back to Berea. After graduating, she increased it to $25 per month.
“My giving as a student was a sign to say, ‘I’m not poor,’” Barbour explained with emotion in her voice. “For all those people who looked down on my mom and dad, to be able to say I could give $5, and I was able to help someone else meant I had made it, and I was no longer a misfit.”
Barbour continues to dream about how she could serve further at Berea College, perhaps even becoming its president someday. Like she experienced under former President John Stephenson and his wife Jane and sees exhibited by current President Lyle Roelofs and First Lady Laurie, she is excited by the impact she could have engaging students in that role.
“I want to say I started as a student to whom people said I couldn’t, and now I get to be encouraging, engaging and help students to be their best,” Barbour said. “How much more impact can I have than in the presidency to continue to help students understand they can be who they want to be as long as they set their minds to it?”