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will not sense any difference froma dozen
other small, private colleges in the east.
Students stroll down tree-lined walkways to
academic buildings that harken back to the
19th century. Students loll on the manicured
lawns, their laptops glowing.
But keep looking, and the differences
start to emerge. In one corner of the campus
sits a nondescript building with a sign that
simply says, “Broomcraft.”The sign on another building, close
by, says, “Wrought Iron.”
It’s probably safe to say that no building at Swarthmore is
labeled “Broomcraft.”That’s because Swarthmore students
don’t make brooms. But Berea students do just that. Inside the
Broomcraft building is a small factory where students learn
how to craft a fine artisan broom from the best materials.
Sreirath Khieu, an international student fromCambodia
who goes by the nickname “Chan” on campus, sat at one of
the workplace benches, surrounded by sheaves of golden
broomcorn.The fifth of seven children in Cambodia, she is the
first person in her family to come to America or go to college.
She seems to sense the irony of a newly arrived Cambodian
turning out brooms that will be sold in nearby shops as replicas
of American folk-craft. But she also loves it.
“In Cambodia, making brooms is kind of a low-class job,
and I was surprised when they toldme my labor position
would be in broomcraft,” she said. “I found out that making
good brooms is really hard.”
Khieu pauses and then comes to a Zen-like conclusion. “We
are not only learning how tomake brooms here,” she said. “We
are learning what a person needs, inside, to be a good broom
maker.”
But the work program is only part of Berea’s unusual
approach to higher
education.The college has
no fraternities or sororities
and requires students to
live on-campus throughout
their undergraduate careers.
No alcohol is allowed on
or off campus (Berea is in a
dry county), and smoking
is severely restricted.There
is no football team, no
funky college town next
to the campus, and the car
prohibition extends to all
students except seniors.
It’s enough to cramp the
style of any 19-year-old. “The
truth is, you have to work
at finding entertainment
here,” said AndrewHartl,
a junior fromMalta, Ohio.
“Sometimes I think of it as
the Berea bubble, a protected
world that has its own rules.
You either live with the rules
andmake peace with them,
or you struggle. I would guess about 80 percent of the kids
make peace with it, and 20 percent struggle.”
Gail Wofford, vice president for labor and student life,
agrees that some of the restrictions can be tough. But the rules
do not flow fromamistrust of the students, she said. Rather,
they are directed at maintaining the college’s strong sense of
community.
“We’re saying to the students, ‘You’re going to be with us for
four years. In that period, you can’t get away fromus by living
off campus or driving away in your car. Youmust stay interested
in what Berea has to offer. Youmust live and learn together like
a family, and, if you do that, you will benefit. You will become a
better person,’” she said.
WhenWoffordmentions family, she is referring to the
remarkably diverse population of white, black and foreign
students that now fills the campus. Even though Berea was
founded on Christian principles back in 1855, its attitude
has always been inclusive of different races and religious
backgrounds. At present 17 percent of students are African
American and eight percent are international.
Much of this heritage stems fromBerea’s 150-year history.
When the founders arrived at their mountain-ridge site 35
miles south of Lexington in 1855, they first created the town
of Berea, with the college following a few years later. And it
was nomere town but a controversial utopian community
that extended equal rights to all women andmen, including
African Americans. Within the community, blacks and whites
were required to live next door to each other in a checkerboard
pattern.
Not surprisingly, these ideals did not sit well in the southern
Kentucky culture of the time.The community was attacked
and driven away by pro-slavery thugs during the Civil War
but returned in the following years and established the college
expressly for “freedmen,” or former slaves, and the mountain
populations of Appalachia.
During those early years the college leaders also developed
eight principles, known as the “Great Commitments,” that
continue to guide the college’s policies today.These principles
are the source of the work programand the four-year
residential policy as well as the more general approach to
college life that the Great Commitments describe as “plain
living.”
In spite of its spare lifestyle, this approach has proven
remarkably resilient and successful. Berea’s retention and
graduation rates remain high, especially for a college where
the students are uniformly poor andmust withstand the
consequent economic pressures. At present, 80 percent of
Berea’s first-year students return for their sophomore year,
and 65 percent graduate within five years. Moreover, about 55
percent of its graduates earn advanced degrees.
And the college continues to attract high-level applicants.
This fall’s incoming class has an average ACT score of 23 and
1,100 on the SATs. Sixty percent of entering freshmen ranked
in the top 20 percent of their high school class, and the average
grade point average of all first-year students is a “recalculated”
3.4—a figure used by Berea that excludes all non-academic
courses. Pure GPAs were approximately 3.8.
Berea has also fared well in the world of college rankings.
U.S. News &World Report
rated Berea the best comprehensive
Unlike other colleges,
Berea uses its
endowment largely to
provide free tuition.
Most Berea students accept the strict campus rules,
but about “20 percent struggle” with them, says
junior Andrew Hartl.