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Berea College Becoming More Diverse

June 16, 2008

By Bill Robinson, Richmond Register, Ky.

Jun. 16–BEREA — Why does a college dedicated in large part to educating students from southern Appalachia so they can be leaders of the region emphasize international studies?

“I was asked that question when seeking a donation for our international programs,” Berea College President Larry Shinn told alumni who were on campus this past weekend for an annual reunion.

Shinn then cited the example of a Williamsburg-based coal mine owned by the Tampa Bay Electric Co.

A shift of 40 college-educated miners extract twice the coal that a shift of 200 could mine in earlier years, he said. Tampa Bay Electric, however, does not burn the coal. It buys cheaper coal from South America and sells the high-grade Kentucky coal to German customers.

“We want to prepare our students for life in the world, not just the United States,” he said.

When Berea’s founders dedicated the school to co-education of the sexes as well as races in 1855, both concepts were radical, but “race and gender still matter,” Shinn said. The need for education to bridge cultural divides only increases as the world becomes smaller and more interdependent, he said.

Berea wants its graduates to contribute to cross-cultural understanding and conflict resolution, Shinn said, “because we live in a world where we fight among ourselves over religion and where religion can be a force for evil as well as good.”

About half of the 2008 graduating class had studied abroad while at Berea, and each semester, the college emphasizes a different part of the world.

This past spring, seven Tibetan Buddhist monks visited campus as Berea emphasized Asian culture. This fall, when the Middle East is emphasized, the 16 faculty who visited Egypt, Israel and Jordan in the summer of 2006 will draw on that experience in their teaching.

Berea also has increased its acceptance of international students in recent years, with an emphasis on students from war-torn countries, Shinn said. The current student body has 170 foreign students from 130 countries, including Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Myanmar.

The senior class that Berea College graduated last month was one of its most diverse in recent years, Shinn said.

Seventeen percent of the 255 graduates were black and 9 percent were from other countries. About 5 percent of the other American students were non-caucasian.

Berea also has increased its retention and graduation rates in the past 12 years, Shinn said. In 1996, only 65 percent of freshmen returned the following year. In recent years, the retention rate has increased to 82 to 85 percent.

“We want to get that up to 88 and 90 percent,” Shinn said.

The college’s graduation rate also has risen, from 46 percent in 1997 to 70 and 75 percent in recent years.

“Our goal is to graduate 88 to 90 percent,” the president said.

Shinn said the move by elite schools such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale to waive tuition for students from families earning less than $70,000 will not draw students away from Berea, which charges no tuition and accepts only students from low-income families.

Berea is still more accessible than such elite institutions as Harvard, which accepts only 10 percent of its applicants. Only about 6 percent of Harvard students are eligible for federal grants, Shinn said, while 87 percent of Berea’s students are eligible for federal assistance.

Through the GEAR UP outreach program it conducts, Berea is working to increase high school graduation rates in counties near the college, where Shinn said some high schools graduate less than half of their white male students.

Bill Robinson can be reached at brobinson@richmondregister.com or at 623-1669, Ext. 267.

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