New Opportunity School Provides Hope
Six local ladies graduated from Bluefield College's New Opportunity School for Women, June 24, celebrating the beginning of a new chapter of life filled with hope and anticipation.

New Opportunity School Provides Hope

By Chris Shoemaker | July 17, 2017 | RSS

It was commencement day at Bluefield College, June 24, 2017, as six local women accepted diplomas and celebrated the beginning of a new chapter of life filled with hope and anticipation.

But, the ladies weren’t typical BC students earning college degrees. Instead, they were six seasoned women whose circumstances in life had left them short of their educational goals, low on income, limited in self-confidence, and with very little hope.

That is until they enrolled in the New Opportunity School for Women at Bluefield College, completed the life-changing three-week residential program, and earned their diplomas in the community outreach initiative designed to help disadvantaged women from Appalachia confront their circumstances, overcome their conditions, and find hope and direction for a new and better life.

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 endeavors 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 the establishment of the third location at Bluefield College in 2013.

“Every year when I come back (to Bluefield) for graduation, I feel the love, care, concern and support for the women in this program,” said Stephenson, who spoke about BC’s commitment to the NOSW. “It’s one of the most wonderful things. It’s amazing to me how much Bluefield College has done to support and make this program happen for five years.”

The six Appalachian women, ages 30-55, who completed the program this summer included Penny Fields of Bandy, Virginia; Marissa Handy of Hinton, West Virginia; Holly Kesner of Hinton, West Virginia; Robin Novotny of Dublin, Virginia; Brandi Reel of Hinton, West Virginia; and Charity Utterback of Hinton, West Virginia.

“This has been a really great support system for those of us who don’t have it back home, and it’s really given us the power to move forward in life with the plans that we want to do,” said Handy. “It’s helped me face my problems and learn how to deal with them when I get back home.”

Together, the ladies completed three weeks of intense professional and personal development to graduate from the NOSW. During that time, they took part in a variety of career, educational and cultural improvement activities. With a sincere interest to learn and improve their lives, despite past failures and hardships and current difficult circumstances, they spent 50 hours per week in workshops, classes, internships and study trips, all for the purpose of becoming more self-sufficient.

“We all have our own problems in life, whether it’s an obsessive friend, addictions or self-esteem issues, but it will be easier for us now to go home and face those issues,” said Reel. “Before we were used to running from them, but now we’re ready to go home and change a lot of things in life.”

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

“I really enjoyed the writing classes, because I would like to write a book some time, and I learned quite a bit about it,” said Novotny, who also spoke about the fun she had in painting classes and jewelry making. “Coming here has opened up everything and taught me that I can deal with my problems. One time I was a people person, and now I don’t go around people; I just stay at home. Maybe now I can get back out and breathe a little and be around people again. That will be nice.”

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. They took part in exercises to explore their interests and gifts and to determine how best to find a job.

“We got to be ourselves here,” said Utterback. “Back home, I always felt like I had to hide who I was, but here everybody is accepting and helps me be me. Being here makes you look back on the life you had outside of this, and you realize who is good and who is bad and who you need to get rid of in your life. It’s helped us face our issues from the past.”

In addition, the ladies participated in paid internships at Bluefield College, Bluefield Arts and Crafts Center, Mercer County Animal Shelter, Tazewell County Public Library, Wade Center, and WISE Women’s Resource Center.

“The first day I got here I didn’t think I was going to fit in, but after three weeks I actually fit in with everybody,” said Kesner. “I’ve gained a lot of self-confidence, and the goal that I’ve set for myself is to go to college and to make something of myself.”

For personal development, the ladies examined women’s health issues, legal issues for women, violence associated with women, and self-defense. Alongside house sitter Crystal Oritz of Gap Mills, West Virginia, they also attended seminars on fashion, beauty tips, etiquette, and self-esteem.

“I’m leaving here with a different mindset,” said Reel. “I’ve always been a strong-willed person, but this has just made it set in stone. I can do this. I went through a divorce last year, now raising three kids on my own. It has been hard, and sometimes I didn’t know if I could do it, but now I know I can do it.”

The personal development activities also included makeovers, physical exams, health screenings, and individual private counseling sessions.

“The New Opportunity School for Women helped me in a lot of ways,” said Fields, who hopes to continue her education at Bluefield College. “I learned how to be assertive and to speak up for what I want.”

During the NOSW graduation ceremony, the ladies received diplomas and were asked to give a speech reflecting upon their experiences in the program. Organizers also thanked the Alfred and Shirley Wampler Caudill Foundation and other donors for their support of the NOSW, along with local civic groups, churches and individuals who provided meals and businesses and non-profit agencies who offered internships during the summer session.

“The New Opportunity School for Women is an incredible program, and these ladies have been amazing” said Patricia Jacobs, director of the NOSW at Bluefield. “Each of their stories is an important one, and they have been so supportive of one another. They have been delightful, and I truly have enjoyed every one of them.”

To find out more about the New Opportunity School for Women, even apply online for the summer 2018 session at Bluefield College, visit Interested applicants may also contact Jacobs by phone at 276-326-4257 or by e-mail for more information or to receive and submit an application by postal mail.


Media Contact

Chris Shoemaker, Assistant Professor of Communication