Former First Lady of Berea College, Jane Stephenson, founded the New Opportunity School for Women program in 1986. Mrs. Stephenson’s interactions with many people in Berea inspired her to create a program that would help women in need. One day, she received a phone call from one of her friends, who was trying to help his friend living in eastern Kentucky. He wanted to help her reestablish her life after her divorce, regain her self-confidence, and find a good job to support herself in life. Moreover, the inspiration to create the New Opportunity School for Women also came after the former Berea College president, Dr. John Stephenson, and the First Lady, Jane Stephenson, read an article about an earlier existing program called the Opportunity School. The older Opportunity School program existed from 1925 to the 1950s, which gave adults from Appalachia an opportunity to study part time at Berea College. Dr. John Stephenson greatly encouraged his wife in pursuing the idea of recreating the program and assisted in finding funding for its initial start.
Jane Stephenson saw the urgent need to provide a similar opportunity of education and career training for women in the Appalachian region. Based on her previous position working with returning adult students at the University of Kentucky, Mrs. Stephenson was well equipped with necessary experience, skills, and knowledge to start the program. Thus, in 1985 the New Opportunity School was conceived. In December 1986, Mrs. Stephenson received a grant through Berea College that assisted her and her courageous team to launch the program.
ABOUT THE FOUNDER
Mrs. Jane Stephenson is a native of the Appalachian region. She grew up in a rather isolated mountainous region within rural North Carolina. From early years of her childhood, Mrs. Stephenson learned the social expectations and cultural restrictions that society placed on girls. In a world without social media or other technological advancements, Mrs. Stephenson learned about the outside world through her father, the Business Manager at the Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. He encouraged and inspired her to go beyond these social and cultural restrictions to prove that the role of Appalachian women was not simply to marry and have kids or serve the community as a teacher or nurse. Instead, she was encouraged to demonstrate that the Appalachian women were well-equipped to follow a different academic and professional pathway, as well as worthy of recognition for their achievements.
In an interview, Mrs. Stephenson noted that she did not chose her career pathway. Her childhood experiences led her to become a leader. Prior to her life in Berea and before the establishment of NOSW, she pursued various academic and professional disciplines. She earned her Bachelor’s and first Master’s degrees in Business and Education. She pursued her second Master’s degree in the field of Higher Education Administration. Throughout her professional career, Mrs. Stephenson has served as a commissioner, a coordinator, a deacon, and Chair of Board of Trustees for the Lees-McRae College.
In 1995, Berea College awarded Mrs. Stephenson with an honorary degree for her commitment to service and lifelong learning. Mrs. Stephenson’s commitments to her community and the Appalachian region have been recognized throughout the region and the nation.
The mission of the New Opportunity School for Women is “to improve the financial education and personal circumstances of low-income, middle-aged” Appalachian women. Many women who participated in the NOSW originally came from outside of Appalachia, either because of their marriage or a different family related migration.
The NOSW in Berea is a program that is held within three weeks. Each year the admissions committee of the NOSW selects approximately fourteen women from the Appalachian region. The program offers a winter session in February and a summer session in June. It is a residential session, where the participants remain in Berea for three weeks at no personal cost. During the three weeks, women take intensive sessions on career exploration and leadership development. They learn about various job skills, prepare resumes, gain new skills in technology, and go through mock job interview sessions. Moreover, each participant must complete an internship on Berea College’s campus or in the community. The NOSW sessions include classes in health, Appalachian literature, creative writing, public speaking, and professional mentoring. During the sessions, women learn about self-defense, self-esteem, and self-expression, and have a chance to meet with health care specialists to discuss personal health issues. The women are encouraged to understand their rights and to voice their needs and opinions. Furthermore, the participants have opportunities to share their personal stories and experiences, which remain confidential within the program. The caring support of the staff gives the women confidence and comfort to actively participate in the sessions.
During the week, the women enjoy their week nights at social events, which are usually sponsored by local women’s groups, such as the American Association of University Women and the Berea Younger Women's Club. During weekends, the NOSW participants enjoy cultural and recreational events. They take field trips to the Cincinnati Art Museum, Krohn Conservatory, and the Museum of Appalachia. At least one of the women participants usually denies these offers because of family responsibilities.
The NOSW committee cannot always accept all the women applicants due to the volunteer-based funding and limited space. However, the NOSW Berea offers various outreach workshops free of charge that assist women throughout the Appalachian region. The workshops are mainly on the subjects such as developing leadership skills, building self-esteem and confidence, basic computer skills, and job searching. There are career and educational guidance workshops for graduates of the program, as well.
Although husbands of many participants are not supportive of their wives participating in NOSW, the children of many women provide extensive support and encouragement to their mothers.
As the NOSW website indicates, the applicant women need to meet the following eligibility requirements.
· Be between the ages of 30 and 55
· Have a high school diploma or GED (in some cases, women actively working on GED requirements may be accepted)
· Not have earned a college degree
· Have low income, typically below $10,000/year
· Demonstrate motivation and eagerness to learn
· Be able to remain in residence for the full three-week program
The NOSW is an organization that is gradually growing throughout the Appalachian region in order to reach more Appalachian women. The organization finances its yearlong services and winter and summer sessions with the help of donated money. The NOSW does not accept State or Federal funds and mostly receives various kinds of financial help from donors and volunteers. The NOSW branch in Berea receives sixty-five percent of its donated money from foundations. Moreover, the alumni of the program play a crucial and valuable role in creating friendships and connections with various foundations and potential donors.
One of the frequent challenges for the NOSW has been finding connections to recruit more Appalachian women for the program. However, since its establishment, the program has successfully and consistently reached out to Appalachian women in need of support and help.
When the NOSW was an outreach program of Berea College, the leaders of the program put much effort in encouraging the Berea College students to inform female members of their families about the NOSW. Twice a year, the NOSW organizers distributed brochures through the College Post Office (CPO) of the students, so they would inform their families about the program. This way, the NOSW program graduated twenty mothers of Berea College students.
The New Opportunity School for Women has been consistently trying to expand its program throughout Appalachia. There is a vision, with available funding, to create NOSW branches in the state of Georgia and in West Virginia (which will also serve the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania). Although, the NOSW program mainly aims to help women from Appalachia, there is a strong awareness of the Hispanic population of the region. Within twenty-eight years of service, the NOSW Berea has had five women of Hispanic heritage participate in the program.
The NOSW program has had a significant impact on all the women’s lives. The mission and the goal of the NOSW program has been a life-changing event in the lives of many Appalachian women that offered them multiple opportunities. As one of the graduates described it, “the NOSW gives an opportunity for the Appalachian women to reemerge from isolation of their region and into a world of access to knowledge and career resources.” The NOSW program, as another of the women graduates described it, is a holistic project that gave her hope for life and helped her to accept herself for who she is, and that there was no need for the approval of others. Therefore, the NOSW serves as a gateway for self-transformation, guides women to academic achievements, and gives them the capability to enter the professional world of work and establish financial independence.
The NOSW did not simply influence the graduates, but also the workers, volunteers and the organizers of the project. For example, as one woman stated:
… seeing graduates achieve their goals and dreams, and see their own value, is something that I truly love. I treasure knowing that we have helped women move forward, and they also want to share their accomplishments with us. To me, watching them grow is one of the greatest things I experience through my work with the NOSW, and it helps me grow, too.
The New Opportunity School for Women has its own wardrobe of donated professional clothes called Clothes Closet. For graduation, the women participants receive professional clothing, as well as have their hair and makeup done by volunteer hairdressers and stylists.
During their graduation from the program, women give a speech on their three-week experience at the New Opportunity School for Women.
The NOSW offers a class called Expressive Arts, which gets the women to express and tell their personal stories by creating a quilt. The women visualize an image of their life story or anything that represents them and recreate it in the form of a quilt. The product of this activity then creates a visual record of each women’s contributions to NOSW and serves as a present to the school.
The NOSW program, with available scholarships and funding, also helps with any dental work for any participants who need dental care. Sometimes, if appropriate and with funds available, some women can receive mammograms, pap smears, or other health related screenings.
For those female participants who have young children at home, the NOSW program provides funding for childcare while the participant is away from home. Sometimes, the NOSW provides some funding for the travel to and from Berea to attend the program.
There have been many cases of how many courageous NOSW graduates have inspired their husbands, sons and daughters, and even their grandchildren. The NOSW alumni encourage and influence them to pursue a basic education, a higher education, or a professional career. One alumnus graduated from the NOSW program and then attended and graduated from Berea College. Her husband and her son followed in her steps to also become graduates of Berea College.