One sunny June morning at Berea College, Janet Hunt had just gotten up and was sitting at the desk writing in her journal.
She looked out the dorm room window at the trees, the flowerbeds, the brick walls of the academic buildings and the students bustling by.
Then she looked inward and that’s when it hit her with a jolt: I’m at college. I’m taking class. I can do it. I can graduate.
Hunt, 47, had only been there a week, at the New Opportunity School for Women, a residential program that assists women to become better educated and launch careers.
She would be there two more weeks, taking classes in leadership, computers, Appalachian literature, writing and others.
She had come to the program from Safe Harbor, the women’s shelter in Ashland. She had been in and out of the shelter during a life in which abuse had been the norm since she was a child. When she left, it would be to start an academic career she hopes will take her through community college and on to a four-year university, maybe even to advanced degrees.
All that became clear in that moment, she said. “I remember looking out and thinking, I’m at Berea. I’m worn out and tired, but I’m doing it.”
It doesn’t come easy, that feeling of belonging to the academic world, but that is what the program is for, according to recruitment career counselor Stephanie Beard. “It’s not easy to walk onto a college campus in mid-life,” Beard said. “Some come timidly but they leave with confidence, zeal and a gleam in their eye.”
The program was founded in 1978 by Jane B. Stephenson, wife of former Berea College President John Stephenson. Her theory was that introducing women to the world of education in a supportive atmosphere would carry them over the hurdle of low expectations and low self-esteem that had held them back.
In twice-yearly programs, 14 women are selected by an application process from across the state. They come to Berea where they are housed in campus quarters, receive counseling to uncover their aptitudes and skills and take classes.
Some of the classes are academic in nature, like Appalachian literature, and others help them with resume writing and job interview skills.
Participants don’t have to pay for the program; its considerable expense is paid for by grants and donations.
The women also receive makeovers and job-appropriate clothing, but the real makeover, Beard said, isn’t on the outside. “The transformation from the inside out is what is important,” she said.
In Hunt’s case, the transformation was considerable. Her parents had discouraged her from going to college, saying she should get a job instead. It took her six years, from 1979 to 1985, to graduate from Greenup County High School, because she quit twice.
She married three months after graduating, had two kids and settled into a life of restaurant work, telemarketing and other dead ends.
Abuse was the other half of her unfulfilled life; it started with her father and continued with boyfriends and her now ex-husband, she said.
She did enroll in college twice, but her husband took the money and discouraged her from studying. “He said it was destroying our marriage. But he didn’t want me to be smarter than him,” she said.
Earlier this year, during her most recent stay at Safe Harbor, a counselor handed out leaflets on the program. Hunt had heard about it before, but this time she made up her mind to make it happen.
She read more about the program, filled out the application, sweated through the obligatory essay and was accepted.
The program is not a piece of cake, she found out — and she liked that. She had to relearn study skills, time management and responsibility. But at the same time, the program eliminates distractions like preparing meals and household chores.
Participants keep journals and take on internships. Hers was at Berea city hall, where she learned new office skills.
Hunt is now enrolled at Ashland Community and Technical College, where she is majoring in psychology and health administration; she hopes to enroll at Berea or the University of Kentucky when she graduates and perhaps get a job in health administration.
The program holds two sessions per year, in February and June, at no cost to participants, who must be low income, over 30, have a high school or GED diploma and an Appalachian background.
Not every woman is accepted the first time, but Beard suggests trying again for future sessions.
About 700 women have graduated since the inception of the program, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in September.
For more information, to apply or to donate, contact the New Opportunity School for Women through its website, www.nosw.org.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.