Building a future...

New Opportunity School for Women (NOSW) instructor Jennifer Bohannan (left) works with a participant last year on how to write a resume.

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 now have hope for a new beginning.

Thanks to the New OpportunitySchool for Women at Bluefield College, these women have the opportunity to confront their circumstances, overcome their conditions, and pave the way for a new and better life.

Founded by Jane B. Stephenson in 1987 at Berea College in Berea, Kent., out of an urgent need to help women in Appalachia become better educated and employed, the New Opportunity School for Women (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 Banner Elk, North Carolina, in 2005, and is now celebrating its growth into the Appalachian regions of Virginia and West Virginia through the establishment of a third location at Bluefield College in Bluefield, Virginia, last year.

“From the first step I took onto the Bluefield College campus I knew I had come to a loving, caring place,” said Stephenson. “Every person I met was concerned about others and wanted to help people become better educated and have a fulfilling life. Statistically, weknew that West Virginia and certain parts of Virginia had many people that were low income, especially many women. So, Bluefield seemed an ideal place for an expansion site for the New Opportunity School for Women.”

Stephenson said she’s “excited” about the expansion of the NOSW into southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia and “thrilled” that Bluefield College is the site for that expansion. Partnerships with colleges, she added, create a special opportunity for theNOSW to reach rural Appalachian women who may not consider higher educationotherwise.

“I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina in a very isolated small town. I knew even then that women didn't have the opportunities that men had and that there were very different expectations for women than men,” said Stephenson. “I want Appalachian women to have more opportunities for themselves and their families, especially through becoming more educated and ultimately having a career with benefits and increased income for their families.”

The NOSW fulfills that mission through residential programs at its college sites, and today nearly 700 women have completed the curriculum. The 2014 residential program at Bluefield Collegestarts May 11. The session will include three weeks of academic study, cultural experiences, personal development, job search training, college preparation, and leadership development. Participants will work 50 hours per week on a curriculum that includes a distinctive focus on Appalachian literature, creative writing, personal reflection, the Appalachian culture, and cultural experiences in theater, museums and historical sites.

The NOSW program also includes personal support in the form of career counseling, group reflection, makeovers, dress for success resources, and health screenings -- all designed to create a sense of pride and self-worth. In fact, the NOSW care continues even after the residency with coaching, career guidance, workshops, reunions, internships,higher education opportunities, scholarship opportunities, clothing resources, and continued networking with the “sisterhood” of NOSW graduates.

“Education opens the closed doors that disadvantaged women suffer with each day,” said Connie Saunders, president of Saunders Staffing in Bluefield who serves as a member of the Advisory Board for Bluefield’s NOSW. “I am honored to be part of such an awesome project.”

The New Opportunity School isdesigned for women in Appalachia between the ages of 30 and 60, who have experienced difficult circumstances, but still have an eagerness to learn, improve their lives, and become more self-sufficient. Eighty percent of participating women have family incomes of less than $10,000 per year. Manyhave been discouraged from higher education and professional careers, and a disturbingly high percentage of participating women have experienced sexual abuse and domestic violence at some time in their lives. Participants are required tohave a high school diploma or must complete a GED, so that NOSW may serve as preparation for higher education and jobs that pay a livable wage.

“NOSW graduates walk away with a desire to make a positive change in their lives and their families’,” said Casey Palmer, director of BC’s New Opportunity School. “It’s a trickle-down effect. Research shows 80 percent of our graduates further their education, and 25 percent of their children and/or grandchildren now have college degrees.”

Other members of the NOSW Advisory Board at Bluefield College are Ruth Blankenship, BC’s vice president for advancement; Annette Tabor, BC’s associate vice president for institutional advancement; April Weems, operations officer for the Southwest Virginia Workforce Investment Board; Crystal Kieloch, director of academic support at Bluefield College; Dr. Rob Merritt, dean of BC’s College of Arts and Letters; David Taylor, BC’s vice president for student development; Kathryn Olive, community volunteer; Tammy Pennington, completion coach for nursing at Northeast State Community College; Beth Kinser, BC’s institutional advancement and annual giving assistant; Vanessa Scruggs, BC’s institutional advancement office manager; Dr. Don Caudill, professor of marketing at Gardner-Webb Univeristy; Keith Janovec, community volunteer; and Mary Glah, community volunteer.

To find out more about the New Opportunity School for Women, visit the organization’s web site at For more information or to enroll in the May 2014 NOSW residential program at Bluefield College, contact Casey Palmer by phone at 276-326-4257 or by e-mail at

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