Berea College Labor Stories
Berea College doesn’t just admit students, it hires them, too. Though in the beginning, the Labor program provided a means of support while attending school, today many of these jobs provide opportunities to discover and explore passions while developing professional skillsets. Students are required to work at least 10 hours per week, but many work up to 20 hours. Here are just a few of their stories told with not only words, but images taken by student photographers. The work of these photographers brings to life the work and stories of their peers’ labor positions across campus.
The art of putting yourself back together
Jennifer Lance ’20 turns 40 this June. She graduates in December, and a lot of her life happened before these milestones. She sums up that life, and coming to this point, with a metaphor—the Japanese art of “kintsugi,” the practice of repairing broken pottery by fusing the pieces together with gold.
“I am a child of parents who had parents with substance abuse,” Lance said. “They had me at 16. My dad joined the military. It saved his life because he never had structure. I feel like my growth was stunted because my parents never unpacked their own problems. I was holding myself together with super glue.”
She describes the broken pieces of her life as estrangement from her parents and failed relationships. “I didn’t know how to pick a partner that respected my boundaries. My dad was a drill sergeant, and there’s no such thing as boundaries in that.”
Lance came to Berea three years ago, a single mom who had been working as a medical receptionist making $14 per hour. That was not enough to support herself and her daughter, Kerrigan, even in a crime-ridden Lexington neighborhood.
“I had $80 a month for us to eat on. I did not qualify for food stamps. I made a little bit too much. It was hard.”
Pharmaceutical representatives would leave food at the doctor’s office, and she was allowed to take it home with her on the weekends. “We wouldn’t have eaten if it hadn’t been for them.”
Lance decided she needed to go back to school and was accepted to St. Catharine College to study radiation therapy, but the school suddenly closed in 2016 for financial reasons. Her options again had grown short in number, but a spiritual community she had joined was familiar with Berea College and recommended she apply.
“When I researched Berea College, I was like, they are never going to give this to me. This is for children with hardships. I am older. I’ve made mistakes in life. But there was no other way I was going to finish college because I had no money. When I got my acceptance letter, I just fell in the floor crying. They said yes.”
Lance came in as a biology major and took a job in the Marketing and Communications office as a photographer. It was in doing this kind of work that she found an unfamiliar feeling: happiness.
“My artistic side was repressed for a long time. I was allowed to have artistic hobbies, but not as a career. Photography’s an escape. I’m able to zone out and focus on the subject. There’s a reason this picture needs to be taken, and there’s an emotion we’re trying to convey, so it’s intentional, not just snapping away.”
And though she had thought of her age as a detriment in the beginning, Lance discovered she had something important to bring to the table for the young people with whom she worked. “There was this one student who came in for a portrait session, and there was hardship in her life. I told her ‘I want you to think about all the people who told you that you can’t. I want you to hear those words right now, and then I said open your eyes and show me that you made it.’ She had a whole different look on her face, and we were able to capture that. So it’s not just photography. It’s seeing people and coaching them.”
Isis “Ice” Hill ’21 and Sydney Coleman ’21 work as tour guides in the Berea College Visitor Center and Shoppe. Their positions require a comprehensive knowledge of Berea College history, the crafts program and Berea’s efforts in sustainability as they lead visitors around campus.
While aspiring students and out-of-town guests are impressed with the stories they hear, Coleman, a psychology major from Fairhope, Ala., says they are especially impressed with the Labor program.
“I’ll give people tours and tell them that any place on campus that needs hands, a student fills that role,” she said. “People are so amazed. They’re surprised students are the ones who put in all that work and are still going to school or are in clubs or athletics.”
Hill, a health and human performance major from Columbia, S.C., and center for the women’s basketball team, says she learns valuable skills at her job, including flexibility, scheduling, communication and work ethic. Though she now gives tours, she began at Berea cleaning the Seabury Center, Berea’s athletics and academic facility.
“I worked at 6 a.m.—that was the most heartbreaking thing, but it was character building,” she said. “I always respected people who clean up buildings. That’s how I was raised, but when you are the one cleaning, you respect it 10 times as much because you are the person doing it.”
In 2019, Lance was awarded the Sloan Shelton Arts and Humanities grant that allowed her to spend a summer month in California to hone her photography skills. By the end of that experience, she understood her true passion lay in this field. When she returned to campus, she changed her major to communication.
“I had a good chunk of time recently to really focus on what employment looks like after Berea. I got with the Career Development office, explored the Chamber of Commerce website to find out what jobs were there that I’m interested in, started writing people and offering to do pro bono work for them on the weekend. So I have some leads that come out of this photography experience. It’s allowed me to build a portfolio so I can show my work. I’ve never had anything to point to.”
This is what she means by “kintsugi,” the broken pieces of her life put back together in a sense of renewal and usefulness. “Without Berea,” she said,
“I don’t know that I would be anything. I’m not afraid to graduate. I’m not afraid of what our life looks like, even though I don’t know where I’m going. I know it’s never going to be the way it was. I never have to go back. Because of the Berea community, I’ll never be that alone again.”
The objects of her desire
As a kid, Megan McEahern ’22 loved everything about museums, except for one thing. She wasn’t allowed to touch stuff.
“I was always a tactile learner,” she said. “I like to experience things with my hands. I love clay. I do a lot of origami. There’s something about feeling an object that is completely different from looking at it.”
She felt this urge to touch things in earnest during a museum visit in middle school when a Samurai helmet grabbed her attention. “My mom would say the thing had an energy to it. I looked at the helmet and got chills everywhere. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Every time I went, it was the first thing I had to see, and it was the last thing I had to see.”
Through this love of objects the sophomore art history major from Oak Ridge, Tenn., discovered she wanted to work in museums. After her parents divorced, McEahern’s college options were limited, but she came to Berea College as a Pinnacle Scholar unaware that she might have a chance to live out her aspirations as a student through the Labor program.
She paid some dues her first year by joining the student janitorial staff, which had her handling cleaning supplies at 6 a.m., but this year, she found a place for herself at the Doris Ulmann Galleries handling the very objects of her desire.
“I love that in this job, I get to actually touch the objects,” she said. “I feel like I’m in a secret club. I get to be the one who touches these things. Some of them are priceless.”
The demands of the job are many and varied. McEahern pulls objects from the collection for use in the classroom, researches the objects and photographs them for an online database, and is involved in every aspect of building new exhibits.
“That includes measuring the walls, putting up tacks where each painting is going to go and planning out the space according to what the artist wants,” she explained. “Sometimes the artist says just do what you think looks best, in which case, I get to curate.”
Ken Kincaid ’22 came to Berea from Metcalfe County, Ky. The Asian Studies major has general plans for the field of linguistics and has been learning Chinese, Korean and Japanese. For his labor position, he works with the Berea College social media team. He responds to messages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; works with the social media coordinator on concepts like branding and brand standards, basic graphic design and photography, colors and fonts; and pitches ideas for content.
“I love this job,” he said. “I love the people, the atmosphere. It’s kind of like a family. These aren’t just people you work with. These are people you build connections with, the people who will be writing you a reference letter, and hopefully they see the best side of you. Be loyal, accountable, responsible. It’s really important to have these connections.”
But her best days are spent in the collection room. “I’m usually very introverted, and I like working alone,” she said. “My favorite days at work are when I come in and my supervisor gives me a list of objects to pull. Those are my favorite days because I just get to be in the collection. The collection is a big cement room, a big box basically. I’ll just play music while I’m in there alone pulling these objects.”
McEahern doesn’t know yet exactly what her career will look like after college, but she knows it will involve museums and objects.
“I feel really lucky because I basically will have this three-year internship before I’m out of college,” she said. “I don’t think many people can say that.”