New Opportunity School For Women: A Unique Career and Education Program in Appalachia

By Caroline Francis

The Appalachian region has long been associated with limited employment, poverty and reduced wages, low rates of education, and poor housing. According to the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965: The Appalachian region of the United States, while abundant in natural resources and rich in potential, lags behind the rest of the Nation. Its people have not shared properly in the Nation’s prosperity.


Historically, jobs in Appalachia have been in logging, coal mining, and farming, based on the region’s natural resources. Since none of those jobs require a high level of education, schooling has not been a priority. Many children left school at a young age to help the family with farming. With a low tax base, the area also has not had as much funding for education as other areas of the country.


According to a 2005 article by Shaw, DeYoun, and Redemacher, in 2000, 80.49% of U.S. adults were high school graduates, as opposed to only 76.89% in the Appalachian region. They also reported that about 30% of adults in the region are considered functionally illiterate, meaning that their reading, writing, and math skills are not advanced enough to meet the needs of daily living. Further, they reported that educational differences in the region between men and women are greater than the rest of the U.S., leading to not only gender inequality, but also to lack of work skills for women. Because many jobs in the region require intense physical labor, women have tended to be left out of employment opportunities.


The New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW), founded in Berea, Kentucky, in 1987 by Jane Stephenson, grew out of an emerging need for women in the Appalachian region to become better educated and employed.


Program History and Overview

Women from the Appalachian Region of Kentucky and surrounding south central Appalachian states share common challenges resulting from low educational attainment, limited employment skills, few strong role models and low self-esteem. The presence of these challenges are directly linked to high incidences of early marriage, teen pregnancies, divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse and high school dropout rates.


Twice annually (winter and summer) the NOSW invites 14 women to a three-week residential program in Berea. The program is designed to provide women with a crash course in educational and career-oriented resources. During the residential program, participants develop job search and interview skills. Each participant also completes a professional internship selected with the aid of an interest inventory. There is no cost to participants, and funds for childcare and transportation are available. Participants are in classes from eight until noon, Monday through Friday. Classes include: job search and interviewing skills, computer basics, self-esteem, Appalachian literature, leadership development, serving on boards, understanding violence, women’s health, math, and punctuation review. Class instructors include faculty members from Berea College, the University of Kentucky, community professionals, and staff members.


Each afternoon is devoted to an internship. Internship sites include medical settings, educational and government agencies, and local businesses. Graduates leave not only with work experience in an authentic work setting, but also with a resume, cover letter and lofty but realistic employment goals. A highlight of the three-week session is a trip to the NOSW clothing closet to choose clothes appropriate for work or school. This, combined with a new hairstyle and make-up, goes a long way to boost the women’s confidence and better prepare them to pursue their aspirations. The transformation is very powerful.


Weeknights include additional classes or social events sponsored by local women's groups such as the American Association of University Women and the Berea Younger Women's Club. Field trips are taken to museums, the Governor's Mansion and State Capitol. Weekends are devoted primarily to cultural and arts events.


These rich experiences, as well as the opportunities to network with engaged citizenry, builds confidence among the participants to take an active part in their own communities, seek employment, and to return to school for additional education and training.


The School’s part-time Recruitment/Career Counselor provides individual career and education counseling to all graduates of the NOSW (close to 700 graduates); develops and teaches career- and education-related classes during each residential session; teaches career- and education-related workshops in Appalachian counties of Kentucky; provides graduates with information and resources for college entrance; and secures three-week job internship placement for session participants.



The NOSW is unique in that it offers a free residential program to low-income, under-educated Appalachian women including follow-up services during the life of each participant. Upon entering the program, 80% of the participants have family incomes of less than $10,000 a year; half have a GED only with the other half having a high school diploma and no college degree. The success rate of the School’s graduates is impressive. A recent graduate survey showed that 79% are employed, in school, or both; 55% have received either a two-year Associate’s Degree, a Bachelor's Degree, or a Master's Degree since attending the NOSW; and 35% have received a Certification Program degree.





Caroline FrancisCaroline Francis, Ed.S., is a Nationally Certified Career Counselor (NCCC), Master CareerCounselor (MCC), and Board Certified Coach (BCC) with over 19 years of experience working with adults and students in all stages of career transition. In her Alumni Career Services role with the University of Kentucky, she assists individual clients, develops career-related programming, and writes regular columns for the UK Alumni magazine, Career Cat blog, and monthly e-newsletter. Caroline has an Ed.S., M.S. and B.B.A. from the University of Kentucky. She can be reached at cfrancis@uky.edu.


For additional information on the New Opportunity School for Women, contact Lori Sliwa, Executive Director, lsliwa@nosw.org, or visit www.nosw.org.

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laird crandall   on Monday 02/04/2013 at 11:26 AM

This sounds like a great program a.d the success rate is excellent. I worked for 20 years in Worforce Development with many low income young adults. This could be adapted for them. Did they stay in the dorms? Were they able to bring their children?
Laird Crandall

Caroline Francis   on Friday 02/08/2013 at 04:16 PM

The NOSW participants have typically stayed in campus housing or in a local hotel.

Caroline Bodnar   on Thursday 02/28/2013 at 02:54 PM

As someone with family in the Appalachia region, I am excited and encouraged to read about this program. I am going to refer some women to the program. Keep up the good work!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.