A conversation with Berea College senior, Garett, is sprinkled with stories: stories about family and place, stories that serve to connect people.
Garett grew up in Pine Knot, Ky., near the Tennessee border. The name of the town, he tells, came from horse-riding days, when travelers would stay the night in the local hotel. In the interest of saving money, the proprietor would put pine knots in the buckets of horse feed to deceive the clientele into thinking they were full.
Garett is not the first in his family to graduate from Berea. His grandfather originally began at Alice Lloyd College. Family lore says that while tinkering in the chemistry lab (allegedly making gunpowder), he had an accident and blew up the lab. He somehow convinced Berea to accept him anyway.
Garett’s stories reinforce his ties to Appalachia, and to his own home and family. He was raised on a small homestead farm, with cattle, goats, chickens and a garden to provide for their needs. His experiences on his farm gave him a sense of the dignity of hard work.
“The men in my family have been through a lot and never quit,” he said. “They have worked as miners, carpenters, electricians and in industrial maintenance, and they can fix anything.”
Garett is also inspired by his great uncle, who, after attending the Foundation School and completing a mathematics degree at Berea, went on to earn a Ph.D. and become internationally known in agricultural economics. “You can’t count anybody out because of where they are from,” Garett said. “There are smart people, successful people, hardworking people in Appalachia. You have to get past the stereotypes.”
Since arriving on campus, Berea’s Appalachian Male Initiative has been an important community for Garett. Aimed at one of the groups on campus with the highest drop-out rates, the program eases the transition to college. Students take a dedicated first-semester class together to build a support system and access resources.
Class projects elevate Appalachian history and culture. In one class, Garett remembers making cornbread from scratch. It entailed grinding the corn, building a fire and cooking the bread in a Dutch oven.
Director Rick Childers keeps participants connected throughout college with events and the opportunity to mentor new students. While Garett began college with a successful mindset, he says, “I know others who were not confident in their abilities, and the Initiative helped them a lot.”
Garett doesn’t know many people from Appalachia in the sciences and says people back home are surprised to learn he is a chemistry major. He graduated in May and is considering work in environmental clean-up or in industrial agriculture pursuing safer pesticides. He knows he wants a Ph.D. and, ultimately, to be a professor.
Meanwhile, Garett will take a gap year to decide on a graduate program. He and his dad are planning a summer through-hike of the Sheltowee Trace, a 330-mile-long trail through the heart of Appalachian Kentucky. No doubt there will be plenty of new stories to tell.