Dr. Cheryl Nixon sits between her son, Owen, and husband, Tim, in the entryway of the 
President’s House with
their 1-year-old Great Pyrenees puppy, SnowBear.
Dr. Cheryl Nixon sits between her son, Owen (left), and husband, Tim, in the entryway of the President’s House on campus, where Cheryl and Tim have lived since July 2023. Joining the family is SnowBear, their 1-year-old Great Pyrenees puppy. Photo by Crystal Wylie ’05

Before becoming the 10th president of historic Berea College, and the first woman to assume the role, Cheryl Nixon was a child, a teen, a college student, wife and mother. It’s tempting to say she lived an “ordinary” life. But that wouldn’t be true. 

Born in South Bend, Indiana, Nixon soon moved with her family to South Carolina. Her mother, Eileen, was trained as a nurse but had decided to be a full-time mom to her four daughters, of whom Cheryl is the oldest. Her father, Allen, was an engineer. When Cheryl was in the fourth grade, the family moved to northwestern Connecticut.

“It was an area of Connecticut that’s not dissimilar to this area near the Appalachian Mountains,” Nixon said. “The Berkshires has lots of rolling hills and lots of dairy farms. I was lucky to have a childhood that was lived outdoors, which instilled a love of nature and connection to the land.”

Nixon describes an idyllic childhood. Bike riding and ice skating. Playing kick the can with the neighbor kids. Cats and dogs running around.

“We had a little stream that went through the back yard,” she recalled. “We made mud pies and collected bird nests.”

When the youngest Nixon sister reached her teen years, Eileen went back to work in nursing, a career she had fought to obtain and planned to keep. 

Cheryl’s grandmother—Eileen’s mother—Edith, like many women of her time, was a true Rosie the Riveter, soldering metal beads onto oil drums during World War II. Later, as a single mother raising her child in Philadelphia’s inner city, Edith served as a strong role model of female independence, self-sufficiency and tenacity. Eileen carried on that independence in both her social life and, more importantly, in her desire to go to college. In a classic poodle skirt, Eileen and her cousins were frequent dancers on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” broadcast out to a nation enamored with the new sounds of rock ’n’ roll. Later, she announced her intention to go to college and become a nurse, a plan Edith opposed. Eileen forged her mother’s signature on her application to Temple, became a nurse and became a firm believer in the power of education to change life trajectories.

Years down the road, young Cheryl is, by her own account, a shy girl who loved the outdoors. She and her sisters always had multiple projects underway—arts and crafts, cooking and gardening. When she isn’t out on a bike ride led by her dad and including at least one dog, Cheryl is reading. She’s been to the library and back countless times, checking out the latest Nancy Drew or Bobbsey Twins book. Later, she would graduate to fantasy novels like C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” or Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” 

“I was the type of kid that loved to read late at night,” Nixon said, “under the covers with a flashlight. Reading novels is a type of magic of the mind. You enter a different world, connect with a character and start seeing things from different perspectives and imagining entirely different universes. My love of reading grew from that. It was always a true love. It still is.”

Nixon didn’t have anyone to defy when it came time for college. As a family, they pulled out a map, set a certain radius from home and drew a circle. Her father understood how college can change life’s possibilities. He emphasized that the family would support Cheryl’s dreams—if the college was right for Cheryl, they would figure out how to make it work. Many of the schools that appealed to Nixon were in Boston. She settled on Tufts, for which she would need scholarships and work-study to afford.

She had considered literature a passion, a hobby, a way to relax, not so much a career.

“I started off thinking I should major in international relations,” Nixon said. “I don’t know why. I think it just sounded good. I thought I could travel the world. In my first year, I took the required classes, but I did not do very well. I took economics classes and didn’t really enjoy them. I took a lot of French classes. Over time, I realized I was getting straight As in English classes, and that was because I loved them. I benefited from great professor-mentors who got to know me through classes, recognized my reading and writing abilities and asked, ‘Why aren’t you an English major?’”

Nixon discovered another passion in school. While scraping trays off at her job in the dining hall, she got to know Tim Monroe, her future husband.

“We were in the same dormitory as first-year students, and we would cross paths in classes and work-study assignments. Both of us were English majors.”

They moved around a bit as a young couple building careers, living in the more affordable “scrappy” areas of Boston, where Tim worked as a middle school teacher. Cheryl and Tim worked as dorm parents for a residence hall, with Cheryl serving as a dorm mom for more than 60 teenage boys. Tim eventually expanded his career into nonprofit work for secondary and higher education, as well as National Public Radio. Just before Cheryl became president of Berea College, Tim worked for El Hogar, a ministry with the mission of bringing education to impoverished children in Honduras.

Tim and Cheryl have a son, Owen, who is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, Urbana-
Champaign. Also an English major in college, Owen worked for Teach for America for two years in Chicago, during the height of the COVID pandemic. Owen is now preparing for a career in information science, focusing on digital humanities—and a world shaped by algorithms, big data and artificial intelligence.

“Digital humanities is an area he’s passionate about,” Nixon said. “He wants to bring a humanities lens to IT,
a focus on what it is to be human, to make sure there is a human element
to how we’re using technology.”

The human element, expressed through the powerful idea of service to humanity, has been a driving value of the Nixon-Monroe family.

“When you’re thinking about essential values for your family, you’re getting at the core of who you are and what you believe. For us, the first thing is service to others. My husband, my son and I have all been teachers. There’s something there about wanting to give to others, but also there is a lot of optimism in positioning service as your core value, a belief that through working together we can shape the future.”

So what does Nixon hope that Berea’s future includes? Nixon’s life has been dedicated to the transformative possibilities of education, and she wants Berea to serve as a national model for the power of education.

“Berea makes groundbreaking arguments about what education should stand for, whether that be interracial education, educational access, free tuition or service to your region,” she explained. “I want to take that to the next level.”

The fall Listening Tour emphasized the idea of building community, while the spring Strategic Framework emphasized moving the campus’s ideas into action—and she can’t wait to bring the campus’s ideas to life.

Many exciting ideas were raised in the Listening Tour that resonate with Nixon’s background. For example, given her love of the outdoors, she is thrilled that students raised the idea of creating more outdoor gathering spaces where students can relax, socialize and enjoy Berea’s beautiful campus. “When you walk by the new hammock stands, you can’t help but smile and imagine yourself in one!” she said. 

In addition, some other activities she enjoys are finding their way into campus connections. She and Tim hold Sunday Suppers at the President’s House, inviting students to make meals from start to finish. From chopping vegetables to setting the table to baking brownies, Nixon hopes Sunday Suppers will become a new Berea tradition.

In the current future-shaping Nixon has begun at Berea, she also emphasizes the importance of a good dog. Just before she and Tim moved, the big, white Great Pyrenees that slept at their feet under the kitchen table passed away, leaving a space to be filled in Kentucky. And now, in Berea, there is SnowBear, a comedically large and bounding campus puppy. The campus voted on her name. SnowBear’s name results from a shared campus effort—and there is more of that campus collaboration to come.

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