GUY RAZ, HOST:
All this month, for the NPR series "Hard Times," we'll bring you the stories of economic hardship and hope. We've asked you for story ideas. And Emily Nugent, of Berea College in Kentucky, wrote this in an email: With a student body composed entirely of students from low socio-economic backgrounds, Berea students know about the challenges Americans are facing.
So NPR's Noah Adams went in search of Emily and the Berea College story.
NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: This school was started six years before the Civil War. It was to be both integrated and coeducational. And the poor students became part of the mission. The small college town, Berea, is right at the edge of the Bluegrass region. There's a rise of mountains to the east; it's where Appalachia begins.
By 1931, Robert Hutchins, president of University of Chicago, was able to say Berea was in a different class.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROBERT HUTCHINS: It does what no other college can do. What it does must be done.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)
ADAMS: And this year, the Washington Monthly ranking of 100 liberal arts colleges has Berea at the very top. It's number one.
EMILY NUGENT: My name is Emily Nugent. I'm a sophomore at Berea College. I'm from Lapeer, Michigan.
ADAMS: Emily Nugent, 19 years old, a political science major, had been reading the NPR "Hard Times" stories online, and she decided to get in touch. Berea has 1,600 students - most of them from southern Appalachia, but there's somebody here from every state. And at Berea, their tuition is free. It's free for everybody; all four years are paid for. It might be the only way they could go to college. On average, they come from families where the household income figure is about $25,000.
Emily Nugent recalls her first visit to the campus with her mother.
NUGENT: I had finished my tour, and my mom turned to me and said, if you choose this school - or any school - I want you to be as proud of what you're doing as these students seem to be. I don't care what school you choose, but this is the only one that I've seen where people seem to love what they're doing.
TONY CHOI: My name is Tony Choi. I am a senior, majoring in Spanish and political science, and I am from Bergen County, New Jersey.
ADAMS: Tony Choi. We met in the student government office. Choi came to this country from South Korea and after four years of Berea, he graduates next month. Soon, he'll go to San Francisco and walk across America to call attention to the plight of immigrants.
CHOI: Especially in these hard times, I feel that people are placing blame on the other - people who look a little different from everyone else. I've lived in this country for more than half of my life and, you know, I'm still undocumented. I feel that, you know, Berea has empowered me to go back to my own community, you know, which is the immigrant community, and try to find ways that I can fill my role in.
ADAMS: In October, about 40 Berea students rode a bus to New York City for the Occupy Wall Street rallies. Kurstin Jones was with them. She's a senior from Cincinnati.
KURSTIN JONES: I'm a person of color. Like, we have been poor ever since we got here, unvoluntarily. Ever since the great recession of '08, you know, people of color have seen Depression-era unemployment - like, double digits in certain parts of the country.
ADAMS: The Berea students visiting New York wanted to stand in support of the newly poor. Some of their families have known poverty for decades, especially deep in the mountain coal fields.
Charla Hamilton is from Pikeville, Kentucky.
CHARLA HAMILTON: My dad is disabled. He doesn't work. My mother has a teaching degree, but isn't able to find a job. So - and then my parents divorced. I was living with my mother. We had no income coming in at all - zero.
ADAMS: Charla Hamilton, a freshman, hopes to go back to eastern Kentucky with a degree in forensic psychology, and be a counselor in the prison system.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ADAMS: And Sam Gleaves, a Berea sophomore, knows he is going home to Wytheville, Virginia, with his guitar and his banjo.
SAM GLEAVES: Well, I think people underestimate the power of music to foster community.
ADAMS: We talk with Sam Gleaves in a rehearsal room at the music building. He's an Appalachian studies major, wants to teach music back home and to help organize.
GLEAVES: I want the youth coming up through the high school that I went to, and living in the community that I grew up in, to have an expanded idea of what it means to be young, and what it means to be Appalachian. I mean, in particular, gay and lesbian youth, youth of color, all these people - I want the youth to feel welcome to embrace their heritage in the fullest way; where they're not only living as who they are, but they're speaking as who they are.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ADAMS: Sam Gleaves, singing with some bluegrass friends on the campus of Berea College in Kentucky.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ADAMS: Noah Adams, NPR News.