Stories from the Mountains: “New Opportunity School for Women”

The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development turns 40 this year. To help celebrate this milestone, the organization has taken a step back to reflect on the amount of just economic transition that’s taken place in the region over the past 40 years. They’ve been collecting stories, and have compiled them on a new website, “Stories from the Mountains.”

Renew Appalachia is proud to share some of those stories over the holiday months, as a way to spread the hope and joy that is present when the people of eastern Kentucky begin to rebuild their communities together, with an eye on the future. 

“New Opportunity School for Women: Building Bright Futures for Strong Women”

By Donna Daniels


Jane Stephenson received a phone call 30 years ago that eventually set the direction for the lives of more than 900 women over the coming decades.

Appalachian writer Gurney Norman was on the other end of that call, and he turned Stephenson’s attention toward the plight of women seeking to better their lives. Norman wanted to help a friend in eastern Kentucky who had unexpectedly found herself divorced. She needed to rebuild her life and self-esteem in order to make a living for herself and her children, Norman said.

At the time, Stephenson was living in Berea, Ky., where her husband, John, was president of Berea College. She informed Norman that Berea College didn’t provide any such programs to help women like his friend, but a thought struck her when she told him that “we should.”

Soon after the conversation with Norman, the Educational Foundation of America approached Stephenson’s husband. They were interesting in funding a good and interesting program, so President Stephenson asked them what they thought about funding a program for low-income, under-educated Appalachian women.

“I had to submit a proposal by Friday of that week,” Jane recalled, “And I had never written a proposal before.”

But her proposal worked, because that funding came through, and the New Opportunity School for Women was born.

“My whole life had been leading to something I could be passionate about. I had always been an advocate for women to try to better themselves,” Stephenson said. “The New Opportunity School for Women was a miracle.”

Stephenson had been on a journey toward serving women when she was growing up in rural Banner Elk, N.C. She recognized early that girls were treated differently than boys. Though the small town presented many opportunities, she saw limited options for women, whom she said were rarely – if ever – told they could step into typically male-dominated careers, such as doctors or lawyers.

“I had a deep sense of fairness and unfairness,” she explained.

After Stephenson pursued her own education and moved with her husband to the University of Kentucky, she decided to pursue a second Masters degree in higher education administration with a focus on nontraditional students. As a mother of three, she lived the reality of balancing family and home life with returning to school. The University of Kentucky eventually hired her to start their first advocacy office for nontraditional students. During this time, she recognized a growing trend of women returning to school because they had gone through a divorce.

When Stephenson came to Berea College after John was hired as president in the mid 1980s, she noticed that there were very few nontraditional students on campus at that time. And after receiving the call from Norman, she got busy trying to change that.

In the living room of the President’s House, she gathered 15 people from the Berea campus. “They all wanted to help,” she said. “We discussed design, resources and costs for a program to serve women seeking to improve their lives.”

The proposal for New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW) described a program to improve the educational, financial and personal circumstances of low-income, under-educated women between the ages of 30 and 55 who were living in the Appalachian region. After the Educational Foundation of America funded the proposal, Stephenson began planning in earnest for a program to start the next summer.

But, designing the program was just the beginning. Getting women to apply for the program was the next biggest hurdle. Through newspaper articles, letters, brochures and personal visits, Stephenson sought out women to apply for the program. It was designed to make it as easy as possible for the women to leave home, providing payment for transportation and child care. The program was also provided at no cost to the participants.

NOSW started by providing 14 women with an intense three weeks of residential classes in Appalachian literature and writing, leadership skills, internships in the community, cultural activities, work with job-search skills, and emphasis on the importance of further education and training. Staying on campus at Berea College, the women gained confidence to navigate their way through the flow of campus life – from eating at the cafeteria to finding classroom buildings.

“We were removing the women from whatever was holding them down, and we were showing them options for their futures when they return home to their communities,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson was nervous before the start of the first session of NOSW. She was afraid the women would not show up, and that it would be a failure before it started. The day the first class of women were scheduled to arrive for the initial program, Stephenson looked out the window of the President’s House and saw a truck parked in the driveway.

“Two little boys were in the bed of the truck, and their mother was sitting in the cab. I found myself worrying that if she sat and waited too long, the woman would change her mind and go back home,” she said.

But the woman didn’t leave, and eventually, all but one of the women showed up for the first NOSW session. And that was the experience for sessions that followed; women who applied and were accepted eagerly attended the program.

“These women are strong women,” Stephenson said, speaking of past and present participants. “We are very selective in our applications, and they liked that they made their own choice to apply for the program.”

NOSW has evolved since that first session. Upon discovering that many women had never had a mammogram or pap smear, the program has supplied them regularly. It has also provided dental services, eye exams and glasses. The program has always maintained a clothing closet that women can use for interviews and jobs.

Almost from the very start, the number of applicants far outnumbered available space, so the program quickly incorporated a winter session in addition to the summer one, doubling the number of women served each year from 14 to 28. The program also began providing funding for scholarships for NOSW graduates to use toward furthering their education.

NOSW was welcomed by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development as an affiliate in the mid-1990s. This allowed NOSW to begin the journey toward becoming an independent nonprofit, even though it maintained a relationship with Berea College to continue providing the campus experience. NOSW gained 501©3 status during its four years as a MACED affiliate, which allowed for further expansion. And in addition to the Berea office, programs now exist at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C., and at Bluefield College in Bluefield, Va.

The expansion of the program to new locations required coordination of services and resources. In order to expand services and raise funds for each site, the New Opportunity School for Women Foundation, Inc. was created as an umbrella organization to serve all the schools.

Instilling self-confidence and self-reliance for women has continued to be a driving principle as NOSW has evolved. New Opportunity School-Berea Director Lori Sliwa said the average age of women in the program is 41-42-years-old, and that many women think options are closed to them once they pass 30-years-old, and they may become hopeless in that feeling.

“Helping them see that they are smart and that they have a voice and are talented is the most important piece,” Sliwa said. “You can’t do anything without that, whether you are a man or a woman.”

“The women gain a vision of themselves and what they want to do, and then they figure out what it takes to do it,” Stephenson said.

Meg Quinn, the director of the New Opportunity School for Women and Community Services at Bluefield College in Virginia, said she had moved home to North Carolina to stay with her mother and was unemployed when she discovered a brochure from the NOSW program at Lees-McRae College. She applied to the Lees-McRae College NOSW, and was accepted.

“I came from a loving and supportive family and had held a successful job in the past, but I still lacked self-confidence,” Quinn said. “The New Opportunity School helped me get on the right path to build self-esteem to do what I wanted in life.”

The Lees-McRae College embraced the NOSW program, helping women find appropriate housing on campus, assisting them with financial aid, and providing other services. After her experience with the program, Quinn joined four other NOSW graduates who chose to attend the college after being hosted on campus.

Quinn continued to work with the program on campus, even as she worked as a student to earn a double degree in psychology and criminal justice. She even served as a house sister to new classes of women who attended NOSW. When the Director position opened in Bluefield, Quinn felt called to apply for the job.

“God orchestrated all this for me,” she said, acknowledging how she embraces spiritualty that fuels her desire and commitment to give back to a program that changed her life.

NOSW has changed lives beyond those of the women who have traveled to campuses in Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia. A recent study of NOSW graduates showed that their efforts to do more for themselves also influenced their children and grandchildren’s educational attainment. Forty-one percent of NOSW graduates’ children had received higher education, with four of those children receiving PhDs. Meanwhile, 15 percent of graduates’ grandchildren had pursued higher education.

“I firmly believe that if you educate a woman, you educate a family,” Stephenson said.

Quinn experienced “the ripple effect of the program” first hand. Two of her nephews were inspired to return to school after witnessing her efforts to do the same. She said they saw her struggle without an education, and when they saw her go back to school, they knew they could do it, too. The trio all graduated almost at the same time.

Formal education is just one measure of the success of the program.

“Our greatest success is when a graduate discovers her voice and uses it, no matter what path she chooses,” Sliwa said. “Success might look like a college education, a new job, taking a certification class, or starting a business.”

“The women become open to possibilities of starting businesses or commuting outside their local community to a better job,” Stephenson said. “They learn enough about themselves to know what they want to do.”

The women in the program come from a variety of backgrounds, and sometimes have unsupportive family members or spouses that may fear the change this program might bring. But Stephenson said the women who attend NOSW are strong and resilient, and chose to participate in the program because they want to do better for themselves. One of the main reasons NOSW provides childcare and transportation for the women is to eliminate the barrier that having an unsupportive family might create.

NOSW’s success can be seen in the stories of women who’ve complete the program. Quinn recently enrolled four West Virginia women who were homeless in the program. She picked them up from the homeless shelter and brought them to the Bluefield campus, where they spent three weeks in the program. Each woman decided to stay in Bluefield after the program, and Quinn helped connect them to a shelter there. Soon after the program, each woman ultimately left the shelter and either had a job or was going back to school.

“It’s absolutely amazing how three weeks can change someone’s life,” Quinn said. “Each woman came to the program with a different story, but every woman benefited from the experience.”

Sliwa said the women who come to the Berea program have often experienced things in their past by which they don’t want to be defined. So, they come to the program to remake themselves for their future.

“They discover who they are and who they want to be. Who among us hasn’t had something for which we need a do-over? These women look like you and me,” Sliwa said. “They are every woman and any woman. They have dreams. They are moms and grandmothers and aunts and they need to know they are smart, talented and worthy of this future.”

Sliwa said NOSW does not seek to change the women who come through the program. They are simply providing the women with exposure to tools, resources and opportunities that help them discover who they want to be. They also show the women that they aren’t alone in their efforts, which is often the most valuable asset revealed to them.

“The women will say it within 24-48 hours—they no longer feel alone,” Sliwa said.

Each of the program sites has worked to stay connected with graduates through newsletters, emails, letters, cards and social media. They have found that the women stay connected with one another as well. Some participants continued to work with the program. Others have served as recruiters for women they meet. One graduate from the Berea program now works with a program to help women with addiction in eastern Kentucky, and she has sent 26 women to the Berea program throughout the years.

Even though NOSW participants grow and evolve during their three-week stays in the program, they often return to communities that haven’t changed. The relationships forged during the program have helped some women maintain their confidence.

“It’s not an instant fix, but you have the tools to get where you want to be. There will be work to get there, but you are on the path,” Quinn said.

The New Opportunity School in Berea is broadening its reach in order to better connect with women who can’t attend the three-week program, especially women in eastern Kentucky. Sliwa said the school wants to “invite organizations in communities to become active partners in our mission” as a way to better reach those women. The program will maintain a residential three-week session, but will also create a one-week, non-residential session to be hosted in partnership with agencies and organizations in local eastern Kentucky communities. The shorter sessions would focus on self-esteem, motivation and goal setting.

Sliwa said the one-week sessions allow NOSW to meet women where they are, provide them with some of the same tools and resources that women in the residential sessions receive, and in turn, build trust and familiarity with women in the hopes that they will eventually decide to attend the three-week residential session.

“We increasingly see situations where issues such as substance abuse and lack of family and community connections make it difficult for women to find someone with whom to leave their children,” Sliwa said. “We’re still serving women who know in their hearts they want something different for their future, and we’re making it possible for them to take those first steps.”

The residential program serves women who have a high school diploma or GED, so the community session might help women who don’t have this level of education and motivate them to attain it. Meanwhile, the organizations and agencies based in the community that collaborate with the program will become aware of, and hopefully more intentionally promote, the value of women in community.

The basic principles from the founding of the New Opportunity School for Women have continued to guide the program throughout its 30-year history. The program provides a safe and secure environment that accepts women where they are, and by providing life-changing experiences with a focus on a bright future that leaves behind issues and challenges women have faced in the past.

Web sites for more information:

New Opportunity School for Women Foundation, Inc.:

Berea, Kentucky-New Opportunity School for Women:

Bluefield College-New Opportunity School for Women:

Lees-McRae College-New Opportunity School for Women: