An unfortunate message perpetuated about Appalachia is the “get-out” narrative: the encouragement for young people to get an education and go elsewhere to find better prospects and a more promising place to live. Like many others, Erika ’23 was prepared to do just that when she left home for Berea College in 2019. She never anticipated changing her mind and wanting to return.
Erika grew up in Lee County, Va., near a cluster of very similar small towns. Although she lived in a mostly white, conservative environment, Erika found herself often straying from the popular opinions and perspectives of those around her. “I always wanted more,” she said. “I guess I got myself through it because I always knew I would end up in a more diverse area.”
In her senior year of high school, Erika’s art teacher recommended she apply to Berea due to her family’s financial circumstances. After learning more about the College’s mission and opportunity, she knew that’s where she wanted to be. Although she was waitlisted the first time around, she was determined to pursue her goal. In the interim, Erika attended community college and immediately set up an appointment with the transfer counselor. Back home, there was little support of her goals.
“Education isn’t really encouraged,” Erika shared. “It’s more expected for you to find some kind of trade work or small job in the town and stay there. It’s hard to do anything outside of that or get out of town because we’re in pretty poor counties.”
Despite Erika’s setbacks, she kept her eye on the prize and diligently worked a full-time job and pursued her studies. Meanwhile, the Appalachian Service Project (ASP), whose mission is to inspire hope and service through volunteer home repair and replacement in central Appalachia, came to work on her house in Lee County. It was through ASP that she encountered a series of serendipitous events that led her to Berea.
“I was talking about Berea, and one of the guys on the work crew said he knew someone who went there,” Erika said. “I got in touch with a woman from the Philippines who ended up paying for me to [re]take my ACT test.”
Erika’s ACT scores were higher the second time around, and soon after, she was accepted into Berea College. Unsure of what to study, she later felt inspired to major in Child and Family Studies. “I’m hoping to be a social worker, and to help kids get into good, safe, secure homes full of love,” she said. “That’s such an issue back home.”
She feels as though her labor position at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center completely changed her perspective regarding Lee County. She learned about Black Appalachian history, a topic that had not gotten much coverage in school back home, and began to realize there was a gap in education and understanding in the region as a whole.
“There’s this stigma against Appalachia like we all look and talk the same, “Erika said, “but Appalachia is actually really diverse.”
While she isn’t sure of where she will end up after school, she says she can see herself back in Appalachia advocating for the parts of her community that are overlooked.
“I’ve always wanted to leave,” Erika said, “but there’s so much here that can be better. I want to be part of that.”