Jane Baucom had a dream. A native of the Appalachian region, she grew up in a rather isolated mountainous region within rural North Carolina. From the early years of her childhood, she learned the social expectations and cultural restrictions that society placed on girls. In a world without social media or other technological advancements, she learned about the outside world through her father, business manager at the Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C.
He encouraged and inspired her to go beyond these social and cultural restrictions to prove the role of Appalachian women was not simply to marry and have kids or serve the community as a teacher or nurse. Instead, she was encouraged to demonstrate that Appalachian women were well-equipped to follow other academic and professional pathways and worthy of recognition for their achievements.
The future first lady dreamed of a school that would focus on building self-esteem, leadership and job skills in rural adult women. As the wife of the seventh president, John B. Stephenson, she turned her idea into reality when she founded and became the director of the New Opportunity School for Women. In addition, during her time as first lady, she focused on non-traditional students and their learning. “I believe if you educate the mother, you educate the entire family,” she said. Stephenson lived her life by those words.
Her master’s degrees in business education from Appalachian State University and in higher education administration from the University of Kentucky underscore her lifelong commitment to learning. She was also the author of two books, “Courageous Paths: The Stories of Nine Appalachian Women” and “Dear to My Heart: The Story of the New Opportunity School for Women.” In 1995, Berea College bestowed an honorary degree on Jane Stephenson for her commitment to service and lifelong learning.