Berea College welcomes 503 freshmen on first day of classes

Aug. 24—Sierra Marling

Berea College welcomed an additional 503 students on Wednesday for their first day of classes. Nearly half of them are from Kentucky, with the remaining 55% hailing from 34 states and 33 countries.

Newly minted Berea College President Cheryl Nixon went out to greet students on campus.

While standing by Lincoln Hall, she spoke to Kiran Thacker, who had just departed from her first college class ever — a philosophy class.

"That's what I'm really excited for. Philosophy is something that I've always liked. It wasn't accessible in high school, but it is here. So, I was looking forward to it here," she said.

"What are you looking forward to the most about Berea? What do you think?" Nixon asked the student.

"That's kind of hard," replied Thacker. "The education, definitely. I've heard that this place has a really good educational program, regardless of what field you're going into, you know?"

Thacker also commented on the community and diversity of the school, saying it was a draw for her.

"I've known a couple of people that have gone here and they've all said that it's been a great community... It's diverse, and it's tight-knit," she remarked.

Nixon said, "I'm noticing that students are coming back really excited because it feels as if we're finally entering a phase where we put COVID behind us enough for students to get back to remembering the joy of education. I think that they're here to find community and friendship with each other. But the students here are really strong academically, so they're really excited to get back into their classes. They love the faculty here. They just love learning."

Berea College was the highest-ranked Kentucky college in The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education (THE) 2022 College Rankings and is known for its selectivity as only 33% of applicants are admitted.

However, once they get in, they pay $0 for tuition.

According to officials, 88% of this year's incoming class will receive a Pell Grant and 50% are first-generation college students, which aligns with the tuition-free mission of the institution, which says that it aims to educate students who can't afford it.

Due to those efforts, half of Berea College's students graduate with no debt, according to data from their 2020-2021 school year, with most of them coming from Appalachian or economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Nixon explained that this year, the college is hoping to return to a sense of normalcy now that all of the previous COVID precautions have been lifted.

"What we're hoping to deliver is not only a normal school year, but a normal school year that really underlines the idea of a community that supports you, but also has fun with you. I really think that students want to remember what a college campus is about," said Nixon.

She continued, "It's about that sense of really enjoying the academic, intellectual endeavor. It's a rare moment in your life, that you have this time to be excited by ideas. Be excited by making new friendships, be excited by setting up your hopes and dreams for the rest of your life. It's an amazing opportunity. We want our students to get back that thrill of everything that's ahead of them."

Like its neighbor, Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), Berea College's enrollment numbers are up, with Nixon boasting that this will be one of the institution's largest entering classes ever.

However, she emphasized that incoming students face a unique set of challenges that the institution will be working to address to assist them in acclimating to college life. The goal, she said, is to serve as a "safety net" for students to push themselves and meet their potential.

"Coming out of COVID, when we're nationally talking about mental health for everyone, but really looking at our young students, students who went through COVID, when they were in high school and are now coming to college. They're often needing more support. They need more academic support, but also more social support. They've had that crucial maturation point in their lifetime disrupted by COVID, so they were not able to maybe make friends, they weren't maybe able to connect with their teachers," she explained.

Nixon added, "Here at Berea, they're going to find people to make friends with; they are going to find faculty that care about them; they're going to have their work supervisors that care about them. Students are going to come into a community that's built around them, and that's built to support them."

There will be some changes coming to campus. This summer, the college made the decision to demolish the Edwards Building. Additionally, Nixon mentioned that the new technology building on Berea College's campus, which will be located where the old science building once stood, will be an asset in providing students with opportunities to study new technological advancements.

According to Nixon, the state-of-the-art building will be dedicated to the study of both communication and technology.

"It's the idea of where technology is taking us with things like artificial intelligence, and all of the ideas of that are opening up new possibilities for new jobs, but also disrupting the way that we do things traditionally. It's also about how we work with that to open up new possibilities for ourselves as a society. So I think that idea of having a new space on campus dedicated to letting students learn and think about that is really exciting," said Nixon.

The college has hosted its opening ceremonies for the year as well as a music show dubbed "Berea College Bluechella 2023," but anyone wanting to join their weekly convocations is welcome to do so. They are once again open to the public.