Appalachian Women Find Hope at BC

By Chris Shoemaker | August 15, 2014 | RSS

Appalachian Women Find Hope at BC
Women from Appalachia who haven’t had access to higher education or whose circumstances have left them in poverty, shame or some other financial or personal predicament often feel a sense of hopelessness about the future.
The seven ladies from Bluefield College’s 2014 graduating class of the New Opportunity School for Women.
The ladies from Bluefield College’s New Opportunity School for Women celebrate graduation with a group hug following their commencement ceremony.


That’s all changing, thanks to the New Opportunity School for Women at Bluefield College, especially for seven aspiring women who graduated from the program this summer. These seven women are now ready to confront their circumstances, overcome their conditions, and pave the way for a new and better life.



Bluefield College announced the creation of its New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW) in January of 2013. Founded by Jane B. Stephenson in 1987 at Berea College in Kentucky, out of an urgent need to help women in Appalachia become better educated and employed, the NOSW is designed to improve the educational, financial and personal circumstances of low-income, under-educated, middle-aged women in the Appalachian region.


The NOSW expanded to a second site at Lees-McCrae College in North Carolina in 2005, and then into the Appalachian regions of Virginia and West Virginia through theestablishment of the third location at Bluefield College. Nine ladies completed the BC program last year. Seven new women graduated this summer, celebrating not only an historic moment for the college, but also a milestone moment for a group of disadvantaged, yet determined women.


“Before coming to this program I had no idea of where to go in life, nor what to do or how to do it,” said NOSW 2014 graduate Tonya Scott of North Tazewell, Virginia, “but now I can honestly say I’ve gained direction for my life. I’ve learned so much about myself. I am confident, and I am beautiful.”


Joining Scott in gaining direction in the 2014 NOSW class: Tanja Armstrong of Lebanon, Virginia; Jessica Blankenship of Bluefield, West Virginia; Renee Hamilton of Grundy, Virginia; Jennifer Lambert of Bluefield, West Virginia; Charissa Mills of Bluefield, West Virginia; and JoAnna Mullins of Bluefield, West Virginia;


The seven Appalachian women, ages 30-55, completed a near-month of intense professional and personal development designed to prepare them for a new life and new opportunities. They took part in a variety of career, educational and cultural improvement activities during the three-week residential program. With a sincere interest to learn and improve their lives, despite past failures and hardships and current difficult circumstances, the ladies spent 50 hours per week in workshops, classes, internships and study trips, all for the purpose of becoming more self-sufficient.


“This program has made me realize I am someone,” said Mullins, who interned at Bluefield College as part of her NOSW experience. “Before I came here I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. Being here I’ve learned I’m interested in becoming either a professional photographer or CNA.”


For professional development, the ladies attended workshops on computer basics, grammar, punctuation, and basic math. They also took part in seminars on leadership, career assessment, and public speaking.


“This program gives women the chance to gain skills to better their life, to actually live instead of just survive,” said Blankenship, who interned at Saunders Staffing. “I have gained courage and confidence, and my self-esteem is higher than it was before.”


As part of the professional development, the women also completed a series of job skills courses where they learned how to develop a resume and write a cover letter. In addition, they participated in mock interviews and work internships at Bluefield College and in the community.


“Because of this school I am now more open, confident and aware of what I want in my life,” said Lambert, a single mother of two. “I want to be a hairstylist.”


For personal development, the ladies examined women’s health issues, legal issues for women, and violence associated with women. They also attended seminars on fashion, beauty tips, and self-esteem. In fact, the personal development activities included makeovers, physical exams, health screenings, and individual private counseling sessions.


“I have learned to never give up on myself,” said Hamilton, a single mother of four who said she hopes to someday be a counselor. “I want to go back to school to learn more, and I want to give back to those who helped me.”


Off campus, the New Opportunity School featured cultural development activities for the ladies, focusing on Appalachian literature, creative writing, art and quilting, and including trips to cultural sites around the region.


“I am so honored to be a part of this program and to have had the chance to meet these wonderful women,” said Casey Palmer, director of BC’s New Opportunity School. “Though each of their stories is very different, several qualities make up the patchwork of their sisterhood, including their humor, strength and compassion. These ladies truly care for each other and, most importantly, they have learned to care for themselves.”


Following the completion of the summer 2014 program, the women were honored during a graduation ceremony on the Bluefield College campus, where they received diplomas and were asked to give a speech reflecting upon their experiences in the NOSW. During the ceremony, Rev. David Taylor, BC’s vice president for development, spoke about how the college’s mission closely resembles the New Opportunity School mission.


“Both want to provide a unique opportunity for the people of Southwest Virginia and Central Appalachia to gain an education and to improve their lives,” said Taylor. “It is our desire that the ladies in this program now have the resources they need to continue their education and their personal and professional development.”


In addition to resources provided by Bluefield College, the New Opportunity School for Women and local women’s access to it are made possible by generous donors who support the school. Donors for 2014 include the Bob Evans Restaurant, Dr. Donald W. Caudill and the Alfred and Shirley Wampler Caudill Fund, Christ Episcopal Church, Frank Litz Smoot Charitable Foundation, George M. Cruise Charitable Foundation, Mrs. Mary M. Glah, Mrs. Sherry R. Hester, Mrs. Crystal W. Kieloch, Dr. and Mrs. David W. Olive, Mrs. Jennifer M. Palmer, Saunders Staffing, Inc., Ms. Jane B. Stephenson, The 1912 Charitable Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Eli Jones, Grosses Creek Baptist Church, the Bland Ministry Center, Labor of Love, and The Virginia Workforce Investment Board.


Meals for the women attending the 2014 summer session were provided by Valley Food Services, David and Lisa Taylor, the BC Advancement Office, Sandy Tyson and the Grace in Motion Circle, The Virginia Workforce Investment Board, Darrel Blankenship, Tammy Pennington, Beth Walker, Melissa Quillen, the Adult Protective Services Unit at the Tazewell County Department of Social Services, Karen Rich, Linda Martin, Mike Wade with Chick-Fil-A, Karen Thurmer, Rev. Chad Slatter and Christ Episcopal Church, Charlotte Rich and the First United Methodist Women of Bluefield, the BC Business Office, and Lana Hartzog and Westminster Circle 3.


Internships were offered by Bluefield College, Saunders Staffing, the Tazewell County Public Library (Bluefield Branch), the Town of Bluefield, Virginia, the City of Bluefield, West Virginia, the Wade Center, and the W.I.S.E. Women’s Center.




Media Contact

Chris Shoemaker, Assistant Professor, Communication