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Alumni reflect on LMC's 75th anniversary and the impact the institution has had on their lives
Dr. Gladys Peeples Burks graduated from Benton Harbor High School in the Spring of 1946. That Fall, when Benton Harbor Junior College opened its doors for the first time, she saw the chance to fulfill her dream of going to college.
"I wanted to go to college, but I didn't quite have the money to go to Western, and Western was still quite segregated at that time," Peeples Burks said. "When the college opened in Benton Harbor, I thought this was a way for me to go to college, stay home and save money."
Armed with a $50 scholarship, Peeples Burks, who is now 92 years old, took evening classes held at the high school. In 1947, classes were extended to an old Quonset hut provided by The War Assets Administration, and a year later to the 1860s Central School on Pipestone Avenue. Peeples Burks took her final classes there in 1948 to earn an associate degree in arts and sciences as part of Benton Harbor Junior College's first graduating class.
That institution, now known as Lake Michigan College, has undergone many changes since that first Fall. Now, as LMC marks its 75th anniversary, Peeples Burks, along with a panel of fellow alumni, including sister Barbara Peeples '61, James Ellis '72, Gloria Ender '90, and Kevin Miller '01, reflect on their time at the college through the decades and the common threads that bind them all.
What drove your initial decision to attend LMC?
Barbara Peeples: I was not a serious student in high school. I knew if I went away to school, I wouldn't study the way I was supposed to. Being home gave me a good foundation. I had freedom, but I also had my mom looking over my shoulder, which I needed. Many of my friends needed that, too, because they went away to school, and they all came back and took classes with me at Benton Harbor Junior College.
Kevin Miller: LMC has been part of my family for my entire life. In fact, my parents met at LMC and both graduated from LMC. Many of my friends and family attended LMC and had a great experience with promising careers. I had proof that LMC would provide a solid foundation for my college experience, and future career, so the idea of staying local and saving a lot of money was a perfect fit for me.
Gloria Ender: We lived in Saugatuck. There were seven kids in my family. My sister and I were dating brothers at the time, so we moved to be closer to them. I always wanted to be a teacher, but I was shy, and I lacked confidence. I thought I would try it out. LMC was a place I could start my education and still work.
James Ellis: I wasn't ready for a big college experience. I wanted to go to a small college. Honestly, it was a toss-up between SMC and LMC. It came down to the application fee. The fee for LMC at that time was $5. The application fee for SMC was $10, so I picked LMC.
What was the culture like when you attended LMC?
Gladys Peeples Burks: Classes were not segregated, and the college, in my experience, was always a welcoming place. Most male students were there on the GI Bill, and I was vice president of the women's class. I've had a lot of time to reflect on race relations. The experiences at Benton Harbor Junior College helped me understand that my existence was just as useful as anybody else's.
Barbara Peeples: I was there in the late '50s and early '60s when the Civil Rights Movement happened. I think people at the college, both students and staff, were really trying to improve things. That's why we felt safe during that time. We were trying to find our place, and I felt hopeful.
Gloria Ender: It seemed to me at the time that most of the teachers were still working in their profession. That meant a lot to me. It wasn't a large college, which is what I needed.
How did your time here set you up for success?
James Ellis: In high school, I could sit in class, listen and still get As and Bs. I didn't do that well with that approach at LMC, so I thought, maybe I should read the book, and if there's something I don't understand, I should ask the professor about it. That's how I learned to study.
Kevin Miller: It felt like an extension of high school with smaller class sizes. I got to know the instructors and advisors well. They were these friendly faces that made me feel very welcome.
Barbara Peeples: The teachers seemed to care if you made it or not, and I needed that. I've tried to persuade all my nieces and nephews to go to community college. You can stay home. You can work. You can get that foundation that you need. LMC certainly afforded me that.
How have you seen LMC grow in our community since you were a student?
Gloria Ender: Well, just physically, it has changed so much. It's such a beautiful school. There's housing at Beckwith Hall, and there is the Hanson Technology Center and the Welch Center, which support programs that we did not have.
Gladys Peeples Burks: To see that magnificent (Benton Harbor) campus is something I am quite proud of. There are many ways I know this college is an integral part of this community. To build a thriving community, you have to build a sustainable workforce. The presence of the Hanson Technology Center is evidence of growth by LMC as well as the establishment of the Welch Center, which is recognition of the natural resources this area has to offer and the community's needs.
Kevin Miller: The community involvement has never been greater. Seeing all the wonderful things the school is doing, whether it's through the Foundation or outreach programs, Wine Center, Beckwith Hall, etc., there has been such a focus on getting out in the community and building relationships. Education is vital to the growth of a community and LMC is doing a great job of building that relationship.
What is it about the LMC experience that makes so many alumni want to give back somehow?
James Ellis: Most people recognize that they did get a good education. They were taught how to be a good student. It's like eating comfort food. They had a good time here, and they learned here. They want to come back and be a part of that again.
Gladys Peeples Burks: We watched our mom volunteer. I remember her collecting money for the Red Cross. She set an example for us. We saw our parents giving back. Whenever I saw an opportunity to give back to this community through Lake Michigan College, I did so.
Barbara Peeples: Whenever we can give to LMC, we do it through volunteering or through our organizations, which have provided some scholarships, because we believe in the college. That's why I have stayed connected.
Gloria Ender: I want to give back to the college because of what the college gave to me. It made me the person I am today. I never spoke in front of a class before LMC. I was just too shy. The first time I spoke in front of a class the teacher told me I was a good speaker. Just that alone gave me the confidence I never knew I had. All these classes, all these teachers just built me up. He built me up so much that I spoke in front of 500 people in Florida, and then again to 300 local high school students at LMC. By the time I graduated, I realized that if I could earn my college degree, I could do anything, and I did. That's why I want to give back as much as possible.
Kevin Miller: LMC was critical in preparing me for Western Michigan University as well as being a professional. If I am going to contribute energy, time, money, and resources to an organization, I want it to be at a place that gave me so much. When I look back, LMC was one of the highest impact experiences I've had.
You have all been vocal champions of LMC through the years. What advice do you give students who are looking to attend college now?
James Ellis: Go to class, be attentive, and participate. Not only are you going to learn, but you are also going to have fun.
Gladys Peeples Burks: If you are a student, they will tell you this is what you need to know, we will help you learn it, and we know you can do it. That keeps being reinforced. The students have more support and nurturing at LMC than anywhere else.
Gloria Ender: I tell students to start somewhere strong, that will make you stronger, that will help make you the person you want to be. It is not just an educational experience; it is a life experience. It is a cornerstone on which to build on. That's LMC. You can go to any school, but to me, LMC is everything I needed, and I'm never going to forget it.
Visit lakemichigancollege.edu/alumni to tell your LMC story.