In March 2020, just two days after spring break, President Lyle D. Roelofs sent an email to the campus community announcing the end of in-person classes on Friday and asking students to move out of residence halls on Saturday. In further messages, he informed students to request on-campus accommodation for the remainder of the semester if that suited their circumstances. Due to the gravity of COVID-19, Roelofs, after in-depth consultation with the Administrative Committee, cancelled the graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 and invited those students to return to campus to participate in future in-person commencement programs.
Those emails raised many questions regarding academic coursework, travel assistance eligibility and travel plans. While some professors had plans for continuing coursework online, other professors needed additional time to shift to online teaching. While some students had internet access in their homes, there were others who did not and needed to make arrangements to study at their local libraries, request a College-provided Wi-Fi “hot spot” or speak with their professors regarding the possibility of exemption.
The 2020 graduates had slightly different questions. While disappointed about not being able to walk across the stage at their graduation, they were perplexed about employment as well as the feasibility of further education. Despite operating during unprecedented times, Berea College did not cease its ardent support for these students. The Office of Internships and Career Development (ICD) continued to remain a resource for students, especially seniors, for assistance in a variety of areas such as résumé consultation, networking assistance and graduate-school counseling, among other services.
Three 2020 graduates shared narratives of their final days as students at Berea College and their present time as alumni, detailing how the ICD positively influenced their individual success.
Growing through adversity
Sean Mack ’20, a sociology major, had to postpone his graduation from May to December.
“I was housing insecure,” Mack said, describing what the campus closure meant for him. Not having anyplace else to go, he was grateful Berea allowed him to stay in the Ecovillage.
The rising cases of COVID-19 in the surrounding community heightened the need for precautions and thus increased isolation. Not only did Mack take classes via Zoom, but he also had to social distance from his friends and had to attend therapy sessions virtually for mental-health support.
He also transitioned from working as a student chaplain to working at the horticulture farm, which was a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think working at the greenhouses was one of my fondest memories because it was one time where I could have some type of social interaction with other human beings that wasn’t behind a screen, even if it was at a distance,” Mack said. “I got to use mowing equipment, improve my gardening skills and even learned how to drive a tractor. It gave me something to do, and while I was in the fields, things felt almost normal.”
In addition, Mack received CARES Act funds, which he was able to use to purchase a car, and he was fully supported by the ICD, which helped prepare him for his next steps.
“They helped me create a high-quality résumé, taught me interview skills and helped me explore my professional goals through the class they offered in spring 2020,” he explained.
He went on to describe the invaluable experience he gained working as an Opioid Crisis Research Intern in Shamokin, Pa., which was made possible with funding the ICD provided for living expenses. Not just that, but the ICD provided funding for Mack to attend his internship program’s opening and closing conferences. Those conferences allowed reflection on the work the interns did in cooperation with law enforcement on tackling the prevalence of opioid abuse due to local pill mill operations.
“Amanda [Tudor], Esther [Livingston], Amelia [Gardiner] and Sara [Cornett] all do amazing work, and I’m very thankful for their dedication that made my experiences possible,” Mack said.
After graduation, Mack became a seasonal contractor for Turbo Tax and enrolled in graduate studies at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. At the end of tax season, he attended virtual classes at the seminary before deciding to pursue computer science. Now he is studying online at Oregon State University for his second undergraduate degree.
As an individual with autism, Mack is familiar with the mental exhaustion one experiences from social interactions, which is a pivotal responsibility of a social worker, and so he decided to serve the community via technology.
“One of the most important things Berea did for me was help me to explore who I am and what I want out of life,” he said. “The community (staff, faculty and students) all encouraged me to try new things, find my passions and, most importantly, love myself as I am,” Mack said, citing Berea College as his inspiration for his disposition toward new experiences.
While unsure of his ultimate end goal in terms of career, Mack is confident about one thing: no matter which career path he chooses, he will emulate Berea’s efforts to bring change through promoting diverse communities and service.
Discovering her calling
Sienna Burgess ’20 was another senior affected by the events of the COVID-19 pandemic. A psychology major with a minor in Asian studies, she remembers President Roelofs’ grave email to this day.
“During my last semester, I decided to work 20 hours, and that day, I was up in the stacks at the library, shifting and cleaning the shelves,” Burgess recalled. “When I saw that email, I felt so many emotions at once, but more specifically, confusion.”
Belonging to a family with five kids and being the eldest child, Burgess received permission to stay on campus to take her classes virtually and to work as well.
Due to a labor shortage in the facilities management department, the Labor Office assigned Burgess to work as a facilities assistant in a residence hall; while the job was physically stressful, she was able to manage the workload due to support from her supervisors.
“Mrs. Jennifer Anglin, Mrs. Teresa Barrett, and Mrs. Toby Rader made those days a lot better. I am thankful for all their kindness and encouragement because, without them, I’m not sure if I could have made it through those few months,” she expressed with gratitude.
With her sole priority being to maintain good grades in her senior year, Burgess did not incorporate making career plans into her schedule. She cited Roelofs’ daily updates as the source for learning of the open BereaCorps positions. She was hired into a BereaCorps position in the Donor Experiences and Services department, where she worked remotely for nearly two years. While she did get lonely, she explained, she was grateful for the professional experience, nevertheless.
“The team I worked with supported me and listened to me when I was going through a lot in my personal life,” Burgess reflected. “The experience helped me to learn a lot about myself and what type of environment would work best for me.”
During her time in the BereaCorps position, she attended Erica Woods’ résumé workshops and kept the materials as reference. Upon learning of a job opening at Hutchins Library, she used the materials from those workshops to further polish her résumé and made appointments with Amelia Gardiner for consultation.
“Thanks to her, and a few of my coworkers, Sam Milligan and Katie Grindstaff, I got the job,” she said. Burgess now is a user services specialist at Hutchins Library.
Having learned of the importance of being career-ready, Burgess makes it a priority as a labor supervisor to work with her labor students on an individual basis to make sure they are aware of the resources available at the ICD. She invited Gardiner to meet with her students during a labor meeting.
Burgess enjoys her current job, which she described as a thriving workplace.
“I can continue providing services to our patrons, but when I need some time to work alone, I can go and prepare things such as labor meetings…or go upstairs and assist my students with maintaining the cleanliness of our stacks,” she said.
Though Burgess initially planned to go to graduate school to become a clinical psychologist, she had an
epiphany while working for the College. While she believes she would have been successful in the psychology field, she would not have been happy. She struggled to find a career in which she would not only be successful but feel complete; she has found both in her present job.
“One of my students sent me photos of their summer internship, and I cried after seeing those photos because they thanked me for pushing them to take on an internship,” Burgess said, describing the satisfaction she finds in her current role.
With encouragement from coworker Amanda Peach, she is considering attending graduate school
to study library science to better serve the community. She explained the importance of having a good community library, saying not only do libraries provide dynamic resources for children and adolescents to develop socially and culturally, but libraries also provide technological benefits for adults, such as attending online job interviews.
Each of the alumni shared words of encouragement for the Class of 2022 and future graduating classes.
“To the recent 2022 graduates: I’m so proud of you,” Mack said. “I saw so many of you begin as [first-year
students], and seeing you make it through and graduate was such an amazing feeling. Two-and-a-half years were tough. To make it through four years speaks volumes to the dedication and work ethic you have.”
He cautions future grads that “Berea College is not an experience you can coast through. It is hard, and I won’t promise it will be easy to graduate. But I can promise you that when you do finish and get that degree, it will be the most amazing feeling in the world, and it will be something that you can take with you no matter where you go in life.”
“To the future graduates, take full advantage of all the opportunities Berea College offers,” Burgess added. “The Office of Internships and Career Development has a page of resources for alumni, too. Please take advantage of it and do not get discouraged. There are more people who are invested in your success than you think there are. The only thing you need to do is ask for help and surround yourself with people who are rooting for you.”