Planting the seeds

Ferrum College alum realizes a childhood dream; helps others do the same

When Bernice Cobbs was a young girl growing up in the rural South, she never saw going to college as a realistic dream. In her community, just graduating high school was a major accomplishment. Until integration came in the fifth grade, she couldn’t even expect to get the same quality grade school education her white peers expected.

“The white students, more so than the black students, would talk about going to college,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to teach school. The reality was I could not see myself going to college because no one in my family had gone. I simply understood that obtaining a college degree was my ticket to becoming a teacher. Fearful of the laughter, I held the dream close for many years.”

In fact, Cobbs married her husband, Hildred, and gave birth to her two children, Bradley and Kimberly, before deciding to pursue her dream. The choice wasn’t easy – the commitment of time and money were difficult to come by while raising a family. Still, with encouragement from her husband, she earned an associate’s degree from Virginia Western Community College.

With that first obstacle overcome, the dream that had seemed out of reach suddenly became attainable. Cobbs graduated from Ferrum College in 1998 with honors and an Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award.

Cobbs had grown from a girl who feared being laughed at for her ambition into a woman whose horizons were boundless. She went on to earn master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and Radford University and, finally, a doctorate in educational leadership from Virginia Tech.

For Cobbs, equipping herself to lift up the people around her was as important as the degrees themselves. She has won numerous teaching awards, worked as principal at three schools, and served on many school and community boards.

“My community and educational involvements are certainly important to me,” she says. “However, my life’s mission lies with serving the underprivileged and committing to the welfare of women, children, families, and the extended community whom I come in contact with on a daily basis.”

Because education changed her life and opened a world of possibility to her that she couldn’t have dreamed of as a child, Cobbs strives to provide the same opportunities for others — especially those facing challenges similar to those she faced herself.

“I believe that an education is the pathway out of poverty,” she says. “For this reason, I often volunteer my time with women and young adults who are trying to further their education. This might include helping to study to pass a class exam or a national certification exam, giving advice on the ‘what next,’ gathering resources for their classes, helping to apply for scholarships, and sharing my knowledge.”

It’s a pathway that can change the course of generations to come. Cobbs’ own children are both college graduates — Bradley from Carson-Newman College and Kimberly from Virginia Commonwealth University.

For Cobbs, the benefits of education far outweigh the costs, even when those costs are high. It’s that knowledge, more than any award or degree she might earn, that continues to drive her to work toward the ideals of service embodied by Ferrum College and the Sullivan Foundation. She sums it up, succinctly, in one deeply held belief:

“My belief is that, in order for the American Dream to be achievable for all, individuals like me must plant the seeds of hope in those less fortunate so the impossible becomes possible.”

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