Berea must confront a unique challenge among colleges: how can it best serve the underserved? In any given year, nearly 60 percent of incoming students have an expected family contribution of $0, meaning they come from families who cannot pay anything toward the cost of higher education. More than half of first-year students come from families in which neither parent has achieved a four-year degree and virtually every domestic student is a Pell Grant recipient. By mandate from the Board of Trustees, 70 to 80 percent of admitted students come from Kentucky and central and southern Appalachian counties.
In 2011, Berea began to think more intentionally about the metaphorical bridge to clarify and give purpose to the work in supporting students of great promise and low economic means. Although there are three components of the bridge metaphor—bridge in, bridge through and bridge out—the focus of this issue is on ways Berea College has helped students facilitate the design and construction of the bridge out from Berea into the world beyond.
The following year, Berea welcomed Lyle and Laurie Roelofs to the community. And as the Roelofs traveled the country meeting alumni and friends of the College, their talks with many alumni conveyed that the College needed to offer more assistance to help students launch into careers than it did for them. That counsel confirmed that the bridge-out metaphor was an essential strategic frame for the work that lay ahead. It would be crucial in supporting students for the world beyond, perhaps in a way no other college could or has done.
Today, the bridge out is full of aspects that make Berea’s supportive environment unparalleled in higher education. Thanks to the generosity of donors, Berea can support its students today in ways unimaginable to alumni more than a decade ago.
What other college do you know that fundraises for almost 300 students to have the internship of their dreams without worrying how they will pay for it? That takes seniors to a department store, where they meet with professional clothing advisers who outfit them in business attire for interviews free of charge? That provides money to visit graduate schools and subsidizes test preparation for a host of professional educational opportunities?
A dozen years ago, a story circulated about a Berea graduate who received a prestigious fellowship in an urban area. Several months after graduation, that graduate’s former faculty advisor called to check in and see how things were going. The graduate expressed that things were going well, enjoying living and learning in a new setting. And then the graduate made this statement: Once I get my next stipend check, I should be able to leave the homeless shelter.
Despite an enduring commitment to serve the underserved, Berea had fallen short in supporting its graduates. Today, made possible by generous philanthropy, graduates receive a check for $500 to assist with a move to a new area or help pay a security deposit on an apartment. These funds help them walk across their newly constructed bridge for the first time, turning around midway to look back at the College that equipped and prepared them for success. Other colleges don’t do that. The true beauty of Berea’s bridge is not that it exists, but that such a need was recognized, understood and addressed in its creation, allowing the College to meet the unique and ever-
expanding needs of our students.