College Men from Marginalized America: Male Retention Initiatives at Berea College

Berea College was established in 1855 as the first interracial, coeducational institution in the American South. Founded by abolitionist Rev. John G. Fee in a slaveholding state (Kentucky), Berea provides access to higher education for historically underserved populations—primarily from southern Appalachia—who otherwise could not afford tuition at a high-quality, private liberal arts institution. The motto of Berea College, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” has long reflected its purpose, mission, and vision.

At Berea, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds seek to learn from and about each other while living together. Berea is among the most racially diverse private liberal arts colleges in the United States, boasting a population that includes 44 percent students of color. The college admits only low-income students and awards each one a Tuition-Promise Scholarship, meaning no student pays tuition. Also, Berea is one of seven federally recognized work colleges, providing students with a robust academic experience and an opportunity to learn work and life skills. All Berea students are required to work at least ten hours per week in jobs that support the operation of the college.

In spring 2013, in response to concerns from faculty and staff about the lagging retention and graduation rates of African American men and Appalachian men from economically distressed counties, Berea undertook an in-depth research study. As part of this study, we averaged six-year graduation rates from eight prior years at Berea and found that, as of 2012, graduation rates for all men lagged behind those for all women (58 percent compared with 67 percent), and that African American men, as well as white men from distressed Appalachian counties, graduated at even lower rates (52 percent and 47 percent, respectively).

The college piloted the Black Male Initiative (now the Black Male Leadership Initiative, or BMLI) in fall 2014 and launched the Appalachian Male Initiative (AMI) and the Latino Male Initiative (LMI) in fall 2016. Students in each cohort take one first-year, first-semester course that supports their transition to college and their identity development. The BMLI and AMI cohorts also meet outside of class with staff or faculty members who mentor them and guide them through addressing issues of identity. (We are hiring a full-time, tenure-track faculty member for the LMI who will implement similar meetings.) In keeping with Berea’s mission, we bring all three cohorts together to learn about their similarities and differences.

Students are enrolled in a cohort based on their self-identification as male and African American, Appalachian, or Latino. They may choose to opt out, but very few do. (Appalachian students of color are initially enrolled as part of their racial and ethnic cohorts, as we believe they might find more support in those groups, but they can choose to be part of the AMI instead.) We work in these identity-based cohorts because, although educational attainment for all these students is limited by similar national capitalist politics and ideologies, those same forces have taught them to see one another and themselves in a negative light. When working in these cohorts, students can more easily explore race, region, class, language, and power in spaces that let them be vulnerable as they build strength, develop community, and learn to value their own assets and the inherent beauty of their cultures. This structure sets them up to appreciate men in the other cohorts as they work together as Bereans, both through explorations shared among the three cohorts and during the rest of their college careers.

Black Male Leadership Initiative

The BMLI’s first-year, first-semester course, Mentors and Models, focuses on personal identity development while introducing students to support networks both on campus and in the city of Berea, Kentucky. Because two faculty historians teach the course’s two sections, the syllabus also focuses on the historical context that frames conditions and perceptions of African American males. As of fall 2018, 23 percent of Berea College students self-identified as African American, and 7 percent of Berea students self-identified as African American and male.

Outside the classroom, students meet as a group twice weekly with a full-time BMLI director and a student staff member, who also attends the classes. The director helps students negotiate what it means to be a black man in the United States, in small-town Kentucky, and at a Predominantly White Institution, despite Berea’s diversity.

The BMLI brings in leading scholars to engage students in dialogue concerning the intersection of individual black male lives and public and social issues in American culture. Students may also travel to conferences focused on African American men and men of color in higher education.

One student remarked, “The things I learned in this class are intangible, skills that can’t be measured by a grade point average or a person’s intellect.” Another student reflected, “I have learned what it is to be truly a man and a great leader and more!” One student summed up the feelings of many BMLI participants: “I learned that I have tons of support here as a black male Berea College student. I now know that people have my back and I have theirs.”

Appalachian Male Initiative

Berea is committed to recruiting Appalachian students from some of the nation’s most economically distressed counties. Sadly, industries have extracted valuable natural resources (such as coal) from these same counties to power the nation, and the US media has projected debilitating stereotypes onto these areas. One-fourth of Berea’s students come from central and southern Appalachia, which stretches across eight states. Two-thirds of those students are from eastern Kentucky, one of the most economically distressed areas in the nation. Ten percent of Berea students self-identify as male and Appalachian.

We conducted the Noel-Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory on our campus, which indicated that white Appalachian men are the only group of male students with severe financial worries who also seem to inherently mistrust the administration and who often feel underprepared for college. They long for educational guidance but are the least likely group to ask for help. Other studies that we have conducted confirm those findings and show that these students feel disconnected from the mountains of home where they are deeply involved in the care of their families. They also struggle to find ways to belong on campus. They are, in general, more politically and religiously conservative than their fellow students at a college dedicated to racial and gender equality and concerned with social justice. However, they want to stay at Berea because of the future economic opportunity it offers them and their families, the quality of their classes, and the caring faculty and labor supervisors.

One professor and one full-time staff member (the Appalachian Male Advocate and Mentor) engage these students through the AMI, with support from the director of the Appalachian Center. The initiative has three interconnected parts: (1) fostering social connections; (2) encouraging students’ academic journeys and personal explorations; and (3) investigating Appalachian values, history, heritage, and cultures through the Appalachian Cultures course. Within this course, students practice critical reflection and dialogue and undertake four hands-on learning experiences outside the classroom, led by a Berea staff member, which show the sophistication of the people who settled the region. These experiences include harvesting and milling timber from the Berea College Forest, as well as designing and building structures like those in use in the 1800s.

After completing the class, students have reported developing positive self-recognition and cultural ownership. One student explained, “Appalachia is not all I thought it was. There is a life that has been lived and a story that needs to be told.” Such self-awareness allows these students to empathize with domestic and international students of color. By studying the region’s history, AMI students come to understand the integrity of their lives and cultures and how those ideas often differ from structures of national capitalist ideology. Another student shared, “I am learning how to really appreciate opposing viewpoints, [which] helps me sharpen and redefine my way of thinking.” Most importantly, these students find their social and emotional community. One student described the class as “a family.”

Latino Male Initiative

The LMI reflects Berea College’s responsiveness to the changing demographics of Appalachia and the college’s commitment to equity. The first formally recruited group of Latino students enrolled at Berea in fall 2014. Twelve percent of Berea’s students self-identify as Latino/a/x, and 5 percent of the college’s students self-identify as Latino and male.

One faculty member is dedicated to teaching the LMI course, Latinos in Higher Education. Students spend a semester exploring racial and ethnic identity, belonging, language, and US immigration. Course objectives center on developing strategies and skills for success in college, as well as fostering mental and emotional wellness. Participants also engage in theoretical work concerning Latino identity and the historical importance of Latino educational attainment.

LMI students range from first-generation immigrants from a variety of Latin American countries to men whose families have been in the United States for more than four generations. Because of the diverse, intersecting identities that mark the US Latino experience, these men often struggle to find a sense of belonging, both within the LMI group and the Latino community on campus. Because Latino people in many Appalachian counties are a new, but quickly growing, group, there is a sense of urgency to ensure their long-term success and well-being. Programs that pay attention to the retention rates of Latinos in college are crucial.

LMI class discussions are rich and provocative, centering on topics including struggle, pride in language, and home. One student adapted verses from the song “Latinoamérica” by Calle 13 to express the strength of his people:

Si se derrumba yo lo reconstruyo, if my people fall—what is left of us will rebuild it.

We are the smoke from the factories, we are the working force, and we are hard labor.

Another participant expressed that he felt he needed to hide an important part of who he is by avoiding speaking Spanish in high school: “Once [my classmates] saw that [racism] was okay, they attacked my language, so I hid it for a very long time.” Yet another student delineated the negotiation of identity as a man of color: “Being Latino to me means pain, grind, and sacrifice. No one ever gave my people anything, so we got it how we could.”

Joining These Initiatives as One

Consistent with Berea’s mission of interracial education, we unite the three cohorts to participate in shared experiences. For example, this past year, all cohorts traveled to Cincinnati to engage in experiences together highlighting each group’s cultural heritage. They attended a Cincinnati Reds game focused on celebrating Latinx heritage. The Reds lost, but the words “Berea, where friendships are made fast and true” flashed on the scoreboard. The next day, they toured the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and students learned about Berea College’s roots in the 1834 Lane Rebellion, where black and white seminary students became engaged in the abolitionist movement. Later they met with black, white, and Latino elders connected to Cincinnati’s Appalachian migrant community, who shared their stories and encouraged students to share theirs.

We are in our third year running all three initiatives. While retention rates have not dramatically increased, 85 to 100 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed in their course evaluations that the classes made them feel more at home at Berea, made them more confident to ask questions in other classes, and gave them a deeper understanding of different perspectives. In addition, 75 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the classes made them feel more confident of their success at Berea and more confident in themselves and their academic abilities.

Perhaps the impacts are best understood from the words of the young men themselves. As one LMI student put it, “I have learned a lot about my own identity as a Latino male. It has been quite inspirational, and I will never forget it.”

A BMLI participant agreed:

The skills that I learned in the class are skills that I have the ability to use for the rest of my life. Also, the class gave me a chance to obtain knowledge about my culture. . . . The class guides you to it, but you must show initiative.

Through affirming the cultural capital that students bring and helping them realize the work still to be done, the initiatives help our students learn to thrive. As one AMI student explained,

This class really is one that has prepared me for being better in college and helping me to feel more welcome and comfortable here. The class taught me a lot about myself and where I come from. . . . I definitely know I came to the right college.


Linda Strong-Leek is Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and General Studies; Chris Green is Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, Associate Professor of Appalachian Studies, and Department Chair of Appalachian Studies; and Yoli Carter is Robert Charles Billings Chair in Education, Associate Professor of Education Studies, and Chair of the Education Studies Department, all at Berea College.

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