Last year, 57 percent of Berea College students were the first in their families to attend college. In addition to adjusting to a rigorous academic life and working a campus job as part of the Labor Program, many of these students have the added pressure of forming new family legacies. They may struggle with imposter syndrome and feeling that they are on their collegiate journey alone. But they are never alone at Berea. These are just a few of their stories.
Continuous improvement. It wasn’t just a labor position for Kaitlyn Moyers ’22. It was a way of getting through the Berea experience—that, and knowing she was now the inspiration for the women who will come after her.
The first-generation college graduate from Walton, Ky., describes a childhood where she had to grow up fast. With her mother working, 10-year-old Moyers had to start taking care of her younger siblings after school.
“That was really tough because a lot of my friends could just go hang out and do a bunch of fun things after school,” she said. “But I always had obligations and responsibilities they typically didn’t have. But I think it also helped me realize what I want in life. I don’t want to have to work weird hours and not be with my family like my mom had to. Nothing was her fault. It was just the circumstances that were given.”
Because she had gone to a small high school, Moyers wanted to go to a small college with a low student-to-faculty ratio. Berea fit the bill, but when she arrived Moyers still struggled with the confidence she needed to be successful as a college student.
“I came into college with imposter syndrome, the feeling like I shouldn’t be here, that I don’t belong. But with the support from labor supervisors, staff and faculty, I learned that I really [did] belong here.”
It helped, also, that her new college peers were in the same financial situation. “We’re all kind of in the same boat,” Moyers said. “If you say you grew up poor, people aren’t going to be like, ‘Oh, that’s weird.’ So, there is that sense that we’re all equal.”
For most of her Berea career, Moyers worked in the Continuous Improvement Office, working her way up from assistant to student manager. The Continuous Improvement Office helps campus departments make their processes more efficient.
“I really think it provides a lot of employment history that students may not have if they just went to college,” she said. “I know for me, a lot of times when I’m doing interviews, they hear I worked in the Continuous Improvement Office, they’re like, ‘Whoa, what did you do? What is that?’ And I talk about the skills I learned. It’s just really impactful, and it makes your résumé look so much better.”
During her time on campus, the psychology major worked not only to improve processes on campus; she worked to improve herself. Though there were tough days in Berea’s rigorous academic environment, she motivated herself with thoughts of family.
“I’m sure we’ve all had those thoughts of, ‘Man, I can’t do this. I can’t finish Berea,’” Moyers said. “But there was always something in the back of my mind that was like, ‘No, I can do this. It’s just a tough day.’ I also have a little sister, and I want her to see that she can also graduate college. I think having younger females in my family, like my nieces and my sister, have really helped me push through those hard days. I want them to see that they can do it, too.”
Perhaps her biggest challenge came her senior year, when completing her capstone assignment.
“If you had told [first-year] Kaitlyn she had to present for all of her professors and friends, she probably would have cried. But senior Kaitlyn was prepared for that. She had grown into that role. After I was done, I was like, ‘I’m really proud that I did that.’”
Though having just finished college, Moyers is already paying it forward. She took a position with the Kentucky River Area Development District, where she works to help the elderly stay in their homes rather than go to nursing homes. She lives and works in Hazard, Ky.
“Without Berea,” she said, “I would not have had the motivation to get all the way through college. There were several times I was like, ‘I can’t do this,’ but Berea would push me through it.”
Where Passion Can Lead
Some people find their passion early, others late. For Gavin ’24, he found his passion in the gym during the “worst years” of his high school life. Family finances had prevented Gavin from participating in sports and had made it difficult to make friends.
“I felt different than all the other kids because I didn’t have money,” he revealed. Gavin had a phone but no service, a lot of energy, but no outlet. But things were different at the gym.
“In my sophomore year of high school, I started working out and going to the gym, and I realized that that was what my true passion was in,” Gavin said. “I also realized I was good at teaching people in the gym, and I just enjoyed teaching in general.”
Gavin’s parents always encouraged him to go to college because he was academically inclined. And thanks to his experience in the gym, he had an idea of what career he wanted to pursue—a physical education teacher, a personal trainer or a strength and conditioning coach, perhaps all three. He participated in Upward Bound, a federal program to help students prepare for college, which brought in a guest speaker from Berea College to his southwest Virginia town.
“She told us about Berea,” Gavin said, “and I thought it was a scam because there’s no way they can give us free tuition.”
The first-generation college student found out it was true, indeed, and applied. Now the health and human performance major is discovering a brighter side to life.
“There are a lot of things I’ve learned about college that I did not expect,” Gavin said. “I did not expect friends to be as meaningful as they are. I did not expect the relationships I would make to be as beautiful and profound as they are. My first semester of college was the happiest time of my entire life because of the friends I made.”
He also joined the college tennis team and took a job as a resident advisor (RA) at his residence hall. Gavin never had a job before coming to college. He sees it as an opportunity to build a skillset relevant to his career aspirations.
“[Being an RA] helped me because I do want to be a teacher or a personal trainer or friendly conditioning coach, and all of those are leadership positions,” Gavin said. “So having this experience to be a leader and somebody that people will go to for help really translates to my future career.”
When not on the tennis court or doing homework, Gavin, naturally, can be found at the gym, living his best life. He credits Berea College for his present and his future.
“Because of Berea,” he said, “I can afford college, I have great friends and relationships, and I can proceed in my future career and fulfill my life’s meaning.”
The Pride of the Family
Kyleah Parr ’22 is one of those people who draws others in to talk about things. Family and friends value her counsel, and they thought she’d make a great therapist. So, when it came time to think about life beyond high school, studying psychology in college seemed an obvious fit. Plus, college offered Parr a way to expand her horizons.
“I knew that I wanted to go to college,” she said. “I love learning new things, meeting new people, seeing new perspectives and being exposed to things I wouldn’t be able to be exposed to if I had just gone straight into working. I want to continue learning and growing as a person.”
The New York native who grew up in Georgia faced some financial hurdles when applying to college. The family didn’t have the money to pay application fees, so Parr applied to two schools that didn’t charge to apply. One was Berea, which also does not charge tuition. The other, it turned out, offered her a full scholarship, so she was faced with a choice. She discussed her options with friends at both schools.
“My friend who went to Berea spoke very highly of the academics. She spoke highly about the friends she had made, all the connections with her professors. And also, the diversity,” said Parr, who is biracial, “because growing up, I wasn’t able to really explore my Black identity. So, hearing there were more African American students on campus and international students, I was, like, ‘I want to go there. I want to learn more about myself and my community’s history.’ Berea checks all of those boxes.”
Once enrolled, Parr discovered her friend was right about Berea professors. “I did meet professors who genuinely cared and wanted to help me progress in my career and who are still there for me now, who said they’ll always be there for whatever I need,” Parr said.
Staff, too, were there for Parr, in her labor position at the library, where she learned not only how to do research, but also how to write a great résumé. And staff at the Francis and Louise Hutchins Center for International Education helped Parr find a scholarship to study abroad in South Korea.
“Studying abroad helped me figure out the path I was going to take after college,” Parr said. “Berea nurtured that, supported me the whole way through, and now that’s what I’m [doing] after college.”
After completing an internship at New York University in summer 2022, Parr went back to South Korea to teach English. It’s part of a gap-year experience while she decides which path to follow. Looking back, Parr reflects on the connections that have led her path so far.
“I feel like a person who met all the right people,” she said. “My friend led me to Berea. Berea taught me a lot of things and led me to different opportunities like [the NYU internship]. And I met people at Berea who introduced me to the program that I’m doing in South Korea. So, everything has been connected.”
The first in her family to graduate college, Parr plans to continue her learning in graduate school. But just getting this far, she says, is a big deal. “It makes me feel very proud,” she said. “My family is very proud. They see [finishing college] as a big accomplishment, as do I.”