This UNC student dropped everything to pursue making music full time

By Michelle Li

String lights on and aromatherapy candles lit, she climbed up to her lofted bed. Her fingers brushed side-to-side over the trackpad, navigating over the same button on the laptop screen. To go to Washington D.C. next semester or to not go? She sighed, wary and unsure, then fell back and stared into the popcorn ceiling. 

At the base of her decision lied two distinct paths – one with music, one without. “Would that make you happy?” “If not D.C., then what?” 

She thought about being 10 and starting voice lessons, doing musical theater workshops and opening for Walker Lukens at Motorco Music Hall at 16.

“The answer became so clear to me,” said the now 21-year-old. Brushing over the trackpad again, she exited the page this time, closed her laptop and let it sink in. 

She made her choice. 

Rachel Despard was a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill when she decided to pursue music full-time instead of studying public policy in D.C., and things haven’t been the same since. 

Despard is one of a handful of students at UNC-CH who plan to pursue a music career after college. Now as a senior, she dreams of recording and performing her music, and so far she is accomplishing exactly that. 

Building the band

She put a band together the semester she would’ve attended the policy program. Some members were high school friends and others she met through organizations, events or class. The original band included herself and five other guys: Andrew McClenney, Arvind Subramaniam, Kauner Michael, Evan Linett and Bryton Shoffner. They would soon become her best friends. 

Ken Weiss, a professor at UNC-CH who previously worked in the music business (Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Young) and Fleetwood Mac), believed in Despard. The gold and platinum award winner quickly became her mentor. At one of their daily meetings Despard was restless, anxiously awaiting a response to a venue booking email. She was eager to share her deep, introspective lyrics beyond her close circle and bring them to the stage, but she’d never booked a show before. 

“You walk in there and say you want to play the gig,” Weiss advised.

So that’s exactly what Despard did.  

Standing below the red awning outside of the music bar down West Franklin Street, Despard phoned her close friend. She needed reassurance, somebody to hype her up before walking in. Entering the sticker-covered, teal-painted music bar, she asked to speak with Stephen. Just a first name she received from Weiss, nothing more. 

“Oh yeah, I am Stephen,” Stephen Mooneyhan, the owner of Local 506 at the time, said. 

“Hey, I would like to play a gig here,” Despard said, confidently, “with my band.” 

“Have you sent us a booking email?”

“Yes, two weeks ago,” Despard said. 

Sure enough, her name came up through the hundreds of emails. After playing her music samples Mooneyhan responded. “Okay, it sounds good. We will have you booked for April 6th.” 

Three emails, two iPhone recordings and one visit later, Despard and her new band delivered a striking first show at Local 506. They’d sold 76 tickets. 

That was less than a year ago, and her band has gone on to play larger shows, opening for Dissimilar South at Cat’s Cradle just weeks later. In a short time Despard became no stranger to the local Triangle music scene, growing loyal listeners. Her indie sound with jazz roots gained the attention of folk-rock singer Sharon Van Etten

As every day passes she is closer to achieving her dreams.

“The mission of her artistic development is hers to manage and she is the one best suited to do it,” Weiss said. “She has grown to understand the influence she can have in making things happen for herself.” 

Despite her parents’ and friends’ hesitations with her decision to diverge from public policy and “traditional forms of accomplishment,” she persevered.

You know, it takes guts to do that,” Subramaniam, often playing the role of manager in Despard’s life, said. “There are so many people who, day in and day out, do something they hate because they feel like they should, or it’s the ‘responsible’ thing to do.”

“You don’t make a lot of money obviously, and that’s fine, but you also don’t have to be like a starving artist making just $30 a night at one gig. There are a lot of ways to supplement income and it’s really just the nature of music,” Despard said. “At first when I made the decision I always qualified it with ‘Oh I’m also going to do arts administration or have this other thing.’ Now I just say, ‘I’m doing music. Take it or leave it.’”

When life gives you lemons, make an EP

Feb. 23, Despard launched a fundraising campaign to record her first EP with her band. Within the first day of the fundraiser, she raised over a third of her $3,500 goal. Despard hopes to raise the full amount of funds by April when they will begin recording with Grammy-nominated producer Jason Richmond (The Avett Brothers, Sylvan Esso, Kate McGarry and more).

The EP is the culmination of a year’s work of writing and arranging with her current band members (original members McClenney and Subramaniam, along with Olivia Fernandez, Jakob Bower and Ben McEntire).

In the EP Despard tells a story about the arc of a relationship—from being swept up with love, to the downfall and personal rebuilding that follows, but a few weeks before Despard was set to perform some of her new songs, a relationship in her life fell apart. 

“That was a really hard time for her, and because I’m her best friend, it was a really hard time for me,” Kelsey Sutton, Despard’s longtime friend and college roommate, said. “The week before her performance we road tripped to the beach. We got to the ocean and I was like, ‘We have to jump in, we have to cleanse you of all of this.’”

Screaming profanities from the chill winter water, they buried themselves in the sand and watched the night sky—a perfect refresh and reset.

“She had all these incredible songs about her relationship, and she re-dedicated them to her friends. It showed her strength, grace and her ability to continually be true to herself,” Sutton said. “They still touched on that time in her life, but were still true in the present. We were in the front row cheering her on, making eye contact. She was glowing singing those songs.”

Songs that could have just become bittersweet continue to celebrate her love for people in her life. Much of Despard’s music speaks to the human condition while simultaneously reflecting her own life.

Following graduation, Despard has her eyes set on Nashville, TN, in hopes that the professional artist and music community will help motivate her next project.

“If she’s on world tours and sold-out shows, great, and if she’s not, also great, because I will be proud to know Rachel as someone that brings music into people’s lives on a daily basis, and doesn’t listen to the hate, but focuses on the passion and drive that has already gotten her so far,” Subramaniam said.

Edited by Maya Jarrell

Taking back spaces: from eating disorder to empowering others

By Jazmine Bunch

Ariana Greenwood sat at the front of the Anne Queen Lounge in the Campus Y, with a little more than 70 white faces staring back at her.

“These struggles aren’t limited to thin, white women,” Justis Mitchell said, after sharing his journey with the dangers of diet culture and masculinity.

Ari scanned the crowd while listening to the other panelists.

She agreed to share her story at Embody Carolina’s diversity panel on eating disorders, especially because—after surveying the audience and seeing the few brown women scattered among mostly white, sorority women—she knew her story wasn’t one commonly told.

“Don’t think of eating disorders only in terms of the common image; a super skinny white woman,” Martina Ugarte said.

Panelist two of three. The narratives were so similar, yet, their experiences were still so different, Ari thought.

Just a few years ago, she couldn’t imagine being in this space. Just a few years ago, she couldn’t imagine waiting anxiously as she mentally crafted how she’d share her experience with binge eating disorder, because just a few years ago she couldn’t even imagine herself, her black body, experiencing it.

Her time to imagine ran out, because this was her reality and it was her turn. So, she began talking.


Haunted by size

Her disorder began with the desire to take up less space. One day, when she was in sixth grade, they weighed all the students in her gym class. She’d been weighed before, but hearing her smaller classmates share their sizes haunted her.

“Oh my gosh, something’s wrong,” she thought. “I just need to be smaller.”

From that day forward, she did so much to focus on her body and lost so much of her life in doing so.

Ari is Jamaican and Costa Rican, and she grew up with her Costa Rican family in Tampa, Florida. In a city full of beach days, it was easy for Ari to skate by her family with intense workouts and restrictive eating. She threw herself into the world of high school sports. Her family never suspected a thing, and she honestly didn’t even realize that what she was doing would be the beginning of a mental battle with her body.

Although her family didn’t know her intentions, she grew up surrounded by what she now recognizes as toxic diet culture. She’d spend hours in the gym attempting to burn off her body as easy as calories, and she’d come home to enabling.

You look great. You look so good. I’m so proud of you.

Those words were lighter fluid. She hid in plain sight and tried to lessen herself—lessen her body—while her family praised her for it.

“It starts off as a lack of control, which is why we try to control everything,” she said. “Controlling everything that I put in my body and trying to form myself into this idea I have. Like, going to the gym every day was something I could control, and if I missed it, my world would fall apart.”

It began with clothing; wearing things to accentuate the parts she liked and looser items to hide the parts she didn’t. Then came extensive cardio at the gym. Then it got to a point where she was restricting severely during the week, and when she was alone and no one was watching, she’d binge on the weekends.

She was trapped in a cycle of restricting and bingeing, saying no through the week and unable to say anything but yes on the weekends.

Her weight has fluctuated throughout the years, and she’s missed memorable moments because of the disorder. Senior prom is supposed to be one of the happiest teenage memories, but all she remembers is how her black prom dress didn’t fall in all the right places and screaming at her mom to stop snapping pictures.


Running, then recovery

She wanted to take some parts of her life back. Going into her first year at Carolina, she adjusted her mindset: Smaller, but healthier. The plan failed, and sophomore year she hit a low point. She studied abroad in Costa Rica to run away and get better.

Instead she ran head-on into her problems. She sat on the beautiful resorts of Costa Rica being totally consumed by everyone’s much smaller bodies. When she returned home, she knew that she needed help. Junior year, she began active recovery.

She walked up to the building marked “Still Frames Therapy and Wellness” as it seemingly towered over her. Here, she’d willingly visit a psychologist for the first time.

“It was tough, for sure super tough. Tougher than I thought it was going to be,” she said. “I had just been in denial for so long.”

But the inside was more comfortable. There were nice couches, white noise and her therapist was a black woman.

The office wasn’t quite home but it reminded her of feeling safe. Like when she’s in her white bedroom underneath her purple comforter, sneaking a glance at the reflection in the gigantic mirror she used to dread looking at every morning. Or when she sees Brooke Wheeler, a gym buddy-turned-best friend who’s recovering from anorexia nervosa. They met sophomore year and their friendship has been a journey of facing fear food, tackling gym milestones, and overwhelming support and love.

“We wish we would’ve met each other sooner, but we’re glad that we didn’t,” Brooke said, “because if we would’ve met each other when we were sick, our dynamic would’ve been completely different.”


Positivity and empowerment

Ari’s surrounded herself with people who’ve been positive to her recovery. Although her senior year has consisted of finding the parts of herself that she lost in her binge eating disorder, according to close friend, Brijea Daniel, there are still some things that never change.

“She’s definitely the positive friend,” she said. “Ari’s outlook on life is very positive all the time. She’s always there for us. She’s the mom of the group, and always making sure everybody’s good.”

For Halloween, her friend group dressed as the four seasons. It was no question that Ari would be spring because her “springy personality” was reminiscent of growth and new beginnings, Brijea said. Draped in light greenery and pastel blossoms and butterflies, Ari brought springtime to October.

Ari leads a Women in Weights class every Tuesday and Thursday evening in partnership with Campus Recreation. Although her journey to teach other women to lift has been empowering, her most powerful moment was maxing her squat at 225, with no one other than Brooke by her side.

This scale can only give you a numerical reflection of your relationship with gravity, That’s it. It cannot measure beauty, talent, purpose, life force, possibility, strength or love.   

Five months before she was officially diagnosed, Ari glanced at the Pinterest quote before leaving the caption empty and pressing the share button on Instagram for 1,442 followers to see. But the true receiver of that message was herself.

“I’m reminded that my body is a vessel,” she said. “It’s what’s in it that’s the most important thing.”

Her story is no glorified Lifetime movie, with decaying food in the closet or hopeless moments of dry heaving in the bathroom. It’s just a black girl trying to learn to love what her body can do, not what it looks like.

Once she was done talking, now sitting a little taller in front of all those white women who may or may not ever resonate with her story, Ari felt empowered that she shared it for the scattered brown girls in the crowd who may have never heard it otherwise.


Edited by Meredith Radford


‘Don’t give in:’ Chapel Hill Nine member hopes for continued change

By Julia Masters

After 72 years, Dave Mason Jr. had forgotten the name of the discount store — one of the only places black people could try on clothes — but not what happened in the basement.

Mason, tired of shopping, remembered the quarter his father gave him. He scrambled downstairs to the basement’s luncheonette where a dollar could turn into 10 hot dogs in a matter of minutes.

At 5 years old, he thought nothing of climbing onto the barstool while he anxiously waited for his lunch. He noticed people were staring and began to wonder why, but stayed seated.

“Dave, Dave, we’ve been looking everywhere for you! You’re not supposed to be over here,” his mother said, clearly concerned.

“Why not? I just want a hot dog,” he replied.

“You’re not supposed to be over here because you’re colored,” she said.

“Well what’s colored?” he asked. 

When they got home, his mother explained that people of his complexion were not treated the same as lighter skinned, namely white, people.

That moment would stick with Mason for years.

‘I can’t believe you’re here’

On Feb. 28, 1960, 17-year-old Mason headed to the M&N Grill after the sermon ended at St. Joseph’s church. He met eight of his friends and classmates from Lincoln High School — Chapel Hill’s all-black school.

After the Greensboro Four, a group of North Carolina A&T students, staged a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter earlier that month, conversations near the rock wall at the end of Cotton and McDade Streets became more serious.

“The rock wall was a place that we as teenagers used to gather, and we would talk about various subjects, some of them I cannot mention,” Mason said laughing. “But we did have some very serious conversations as well, and one pertained to how we were going to go about attempting to desegregate Chapel Hill.”

They decided to start at the Colonial Drug Store owned by John Carswell, or “Big John.” Big John lived on Church Street, a street divided between blacks and whites. He knew everyone in the black community since they accounted for most of his business.

“He was a good guy. He just didn’t want black folk to sit down in his establishment,” said Clayton Weaver, who was 11 that day. Big John used to deliver medicine to his house on Cameron Avenue on his way home.

Mason’s brother had a kidney problem, so his family was always in the store to pick up prescriptions. Mason also made frequent stops for “the best cherry Cokes that you would want to have.”

That’s why Big John was shocked when Mason and his companions marched in to Colonial Drug Store and sat down at his booths and barstools.

“I was feeling joyful, needless to say I was somewhat anxious, but the main thing I was thinking about was the way I was mistreated when I was five years old,” said Mason.

“Mason, I can’t believe you’re here,” said Big John. “Does your momma know you’re here?”

Mason said nothing, but stayed seated.

That day, nine high school students, known as the Chapel Hill Nine, staged the first civil rights protest in Chapel Hill.

‘Speaks to the best of Chapel Hill’ 

Sixty years later, their names — Harold Foster, William Cureton, John Farrington, Earl Geer, Dave Mason Jr., Clarence Merritt Jr., James Merritt, Clyde Douglas Perry and Albert Williams — would be inscribed into the rectangular structure depicting old photographs and news-clippings that sits atop a metal base covered in slate on West Franklin Street.

Chicken wire buckled over the smooth aluminum panels bolted outside Franklin Street’s West End Wine Bar. Durham artist Stephen Hayes, sporting denim on denim, crouched down with a power tool to study the structure he was to finish in a few days.

The idea to commemorate the civil rights history of Chapel Hill was sparked by Danita Mason-Hogans, Mason’s daughter.  She met with Mayor Pam Hemminger who created the Historic Civil Rights Commemorations Task Force in 2017. The task force made a civil rights timeline, trading cards with facts about the local movement for K-12 students and proposed the idea of a marker to honor the ones who started it all.

“This marker speaks to the best of Chapel Hill and the values that this community really cares about,” said Molly Luby, special projects coordinator at the Chapel Hill Public Library.

The town asked Durham native Hayes, who teaches sculpting at Duke University, to create the marker.  His work centers around the way black bodies are seen, in hopes of changing the way he’s viewed as a black man.

Until the town contacted him six months ago, Hayes had never heard of the Chapel Hill Nine.  After meeting with the living members of the group, Hayes realized creating the marker was more than just the logistics of fusing acrylic onto aluminum.

“Art is about exposing those ideas, to get people thinking, to get people to understand something,” Hayes said.

‘Go ahead and make the change’

On Feb. 28, 2020, Mason walked out of the West End Wine Bar wearing a black sport coat and peach boutonniere.  It was the second time in 60 years he’d been inside that building. After shaking some hands, he sat in a foldable chair and watched the commemoration ceremony.

Sixty years ago, he sat outside that same building as David Caldwell, a black police officer, took down his name and informed him that Big John reserved the right to press charges for deciding to sit in his restaurant.

Two or three days after their sit-in, it was clear they’d set a movement in motion. White and black students joined their cause. Picketing and sit-ins became a common occurrence until 1964.

“There were many arrests made; we did not experience the violence they had in Alabama, thank God, but we did have violence,” Mason said. “We had people that had ammonia thrown on their face. We had one woman who had the audacity and was so vulgar that she stood over one of the protestors and urinated on him.”

One day in July 1960, five months after the sit-in, Mason was at his then-girlfriend’s house — now his wife — when his father called and told him the police were asking for him. Mason finally confessed to his parents what had happened earlier that year.  The Nine hid the sit-in from their parents and adults in the community for fear that they would lose their jobs.

All nine were arrested, charged and convicted on the grounds of trespassing, as Big John decided to press charges when they returned to stage further protests.

Mason and the others appealed their case — a decision that changed their lives and not just because they didn’t go to prison.

The day of his appeal was the same day as his examination for the military. Mason was determined not to go to Vietnam — something that troubled his father, a WWII veteran.

“Daddy, I am doing this because of what you told me,” Mason said.

“What do you mean, ‘what I told you?’” his father asked.

“Well, you have been telling me ever since I was 13, if there was anything that I felt strongly about and actually believed in, to stand up for it; don’t give in,” Mason said.

Segregation laws are gone, but Mason notes that racial inequities still exist in Chapel Hill. 

“We never ever thought about being honored, and I know that sounds strange. Our desire and our hope still right now is that young people will be inspired by the action that we took, just as the actions that the students took in Greensboro were inspired by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King was inspired by Gandhi, and Gandhi was inspired by God,” Mason said.

“We just hope and still hope today that the younger generation can see things that need to be changed and go ahead and make the change.”

 Edited by Claire Ruch and Hannah McClellan

Serving up second chances with a smile in Raleigh’s hotel scene

By Katie Clark

He’s a vibrant and playful gentleman who is a self-described Gemini. You can tell he enjoys laughter by the smile that rests on his face after yet another joke. His blue eyes match the color of the tribal cross tattoo that circles his wrist. He is gentle, grateful and welcoming to everyone he knows, works with and cares for.

But like most people, he first went through times of unhappiness and struggle. His philosophy is now to believe in others because someone first believed in him.

In 1977, 12-year-old Daniel James McLaughlin worked as a delivery boy in New York City’s garment district. His father worked in a deli called Picnic Fair that sat across the street from the New York Public Library.

Though Dan was the baby of the family, he was the only child who helped his dad deliver food. His father, wanting him to be a hard worker, brought Dan along his delivery route for a year.

“I think that was always instilled in me as a young child, that nobody could ever take that away from you if you work very hard,” McLaughlin says. “People will respect you and you will respect yourself.”

After high school, McLaughlin wanted to attend college but could not afford it. Instead, he landed a job at a Parsippany, New Jersey, hotel run by the Interstate Management Company. He worked in the hotel’s pantry for a year before being promoted.

“My college, my internship was there,” McLaughlin said about his time in the pantry. “That turned out to be my school where I was able to graduate from.”

Challenges that lead to success

As McLaughlin climbed the career ladder, he slid into depression. At 21 years old, his father committed suicide. Shortly after, McLaughlin’s fiancee suffered a miscarriage. For the following year he coped with the losses through an alcohol and cigarette addiction.

“As I drank, it brought me closer to my father because with the hurt, it amplified that,” McLaughlin said. “The more I drank, the better I felt and the more that I was close to him because I had so much emotion. To keep him close to me, I drank very heavily.”

He met his wife, Kristin McLaughlin, in 1994. Dan would make Kris special drinks of Sprite, crushed ice and cranberry juice at the hotel where they both worked. Their first date was on the Fourth of July on Brooklyn Bridge. He met Kris while recovering from his addiction.

“You told me that right up front,” Kris told Dan from across the dining room table. “You told me, ‘I don’t drink.’ I was like, ‘Oh, well I do!’ It was fine; it was never an issue.”

“Yeah, I was a much better person then,” Dan said back with a smile.

McLaughlin’s struggle from ’86 to ’87 affected his work and personal life, and he knew he needed help to move forward. He soon went through a recovery period and began to focus on the career he had been building for years.

A life made new

Today, McLaughlin works as the food and beverage manager at the Marriott City Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a manager, he ensures that the hotel’s food and beverage division promotes guest satisfaction, revenue, profitability and an associate-driven business.

But he does more than just direct. McLaughlin, in his own words, “circulates and percolates,” doing everything from checking payroll, to helping employees cook, to serving guests through room service.

“When you can be the hand in there to be part of the success, instead of just dictating it, it’s very rewarding,” McLaughlin says. “People respect you when you’re working side by side with them.” He works along with his associates while also directing them.

McLaughlin speaks very highly of his employees and coworkers and says they are what makes the hotel business so wonderful.

“Every individual has an amazing contribution that they can give to a guest. Nothing beats the individual personality that people have to offer.”

Anthony Parise, executive chef at the Marriott Raleigh, said that McLaughlin finds the best in every situation presented to him.

“Dan is eccentric; he is a very calm and happy human being,” Parise says. “When he sees someone who has the ability to do a job, he lets that person own it and take pride in it.”

Guests at the Marriott Raleigh can tell that the food and beverage department is well directed just by attending hotel events. Joe Currie, board chairman of the North Carolina Business Travel Association, appreciates McLaughlin’s work at their association’s banquets.

“The event was extremely well received by all of NCBTA’s members based upon the wonderful selection of food, from breakfast to a takeaway snack at the end of the day,” Currie said. “There is no doubt that the entire staff took pride and care in the service that they provided.”

Giving as he received

After 30 years, McLaughlin still works for the Interstate Management Company at the Marriott Raleigh. He moved to North Carolina 13 years ago to stay with it, since Interstate had given him the ability to take care of himself and his family.

“I’ve always been very loyal and very thankful and appreciative of what they’ve given me,” McLaughlin says. “Thanks to my job, I can feed my puppy,” he said while smiling at Butters, his pampered mutt.

“Everyday, fresh,” McLaughlin jokes. “Are you kidding me? He has an acquired taste for finer food.”

McLaughlin said that Interstate helped him build discipline, organization and success into his life. The company also inspired him to believe in others because it believed in him.

“I’ll never forget it. Somebody believed in me at the pantry,” McLaughlin says. “Somebody gave me an opportunity, so I am going to give everyone else an opportunity.”

His hard work and life of service to his company is noticed by everyone in his life, but McLaughlin’s wife sees his work and services firsthand.

“I know the passion he puts into his work and the loyalty he feels he owes, as well as the reciprocal loyalty they give him for all that he has done,” Kris says. “Nobody works harder than Dan.”

He continues to give others the benefit of the doubt just as he received in the hotel pantry 30 years ago. Perhaps now, as McLaughlin cooks, serves and directs his employees, he can return to being 12 years old again. Serving others with his father and giving chances because he was given one so long ago.

Doing good, for the good of it.

Edited by Stephen Kenney

‘How I exist’: One woman’s experience with obesity and identity

By Emily Siegmund

For 15 years, Faith Newsome had no control over her body.

She had no say, no way to show the world how hard she was working and no comfort in her own skin. What she did have was a lot of guilt. Before she could even learn to drive, she was told she was clinically obese. It was said like an irrevocable fact, one she couldn’t change but should be ashamed of regardless.

Every exercise plan, every diet, every change she could possibly make — none of it changed the fact that every time she stepped on the scale, that number inched closer and closer to 300 pounds.

The day she and her parents, Shannon and Jonathan, went to support her brother in Science Olympiad should have been like any other day. They finally found three seats together in the wood-paneled gymnasium of Campbell University, filed in and sat down. Except Faith couldn’t sit down — she couldn’t fit.

She fought her body, squeezing and maneuvering to contain the space she was taking up. She begged the armrests to become just an inch wider, for the plastic to become just a little softer. But nothing worked — all she could do was fold in on herself, hope no one noticed and try not to cry.

She couldn’t rationalize away the relentless, self-degrading thoughts this time, not with the incessant reminder of hard, neon orange plastic digging into her hips, directing her attention back to her body, back to her weight.

That was the moment she took back control, the moment she decided to have the surgery.

Forced to grow up early

In second grade, the nurse at Faith’s school lined up all the students in her class and made them step on a scale. Afterwards, as all the other kids went back to their blissfully unconcerned second-grade lives, Faith was pulled aside and forced to grow up.

The nurse told her she was obese, and that she should know she was at risk for diabetes, heart disease and death. She was 7.

After that, every other kid’s favorite day at school became Faith’s worst nightmare. She pretended not to see them roll their eyes when she got assigned to a team on field day or in gym class, but 7-year-olds aren’t known for their tact. Eventually one would slip.

“She’s too big to run.”

She would duck her head and do her best to stay out of everyone’s way, learning to apologize for the body she lived in before she even understood what it meant. She was conditioned to think she should do better, be better than who she was.

Faith had a riot of curly brown hair, a face that was meant to break into a smile and a nose that was perpetually tucked in a book. She was a straight-A student, a rule-follower and a sweet kid. But she was also fat, and that trumped it all.

A strong support system

“There was a day I picked her up and put her down for the last time, and it was a lot earlier than other kids,” Shannon used to say.

Growing up on 14 acres of land in the middle of Sanford, North Carolina, Faith was one of the lucky ones. In the rural, low-income and predominately white Lee County, her parents both had jobs and a close-knit family. Faith lived in one of four trailers on their property, with her grandmother in a house at the bottom of the hill and her dad’s siblings filling the other space. Until ninth grade, that is, when her family moved to a neighborhood so Faith could switch schools and escape the unrelenting bullying.

Faith grew up loved, protected and encouraged. Her family was always well-intentioned and well-informed regarding her weight management. Most of all, she went home to people who understood her. Four of the 12 adults that showed up to Thanksgiving were obese. Her uncle weighed 600 pounds and both of her parents had weight-loss surgery before she hit high school.

When she was 15, Shannon sat her down.

“I found a program at Duke,” she said.

At that time, there were only four pediatric bariatric surgery clinics in the country — not nearly enough to address the 14 million children and adolescents diagnosed with childhood obesity in the United States. The surgery was controversial and relatively new.

“I kind of thought weight loss surgery was something I would always pursue,” Faith said. “But I thought I’d wait until I was at least 18.”

Her parents never pushed, never wanted to pressure her into a surgery she didn’t want. Shannon, who had successfully maintained a U.S. size 6 since her operation nearly a decade earlier, knew that obesity went beyond weight — it was about perception.

“My dad kind of let my mom act as a conduit for those conversations,” Faith said.

And eventually, it worked. Faith didn’t have her license, hadn’t been to prom yet and was staring down a decision she thought she had three more years to make. Finally, they drove to Duke.

Taking back control

More than five years later, Faith has maintained a consistent 80-pound weight loss, is training for a 4-mile race and just got accepted to her dream doctorate program at the University of Florida’s obesity research lab.

She no longer looks anything like the girl who would answer her house phone in middle school, only to hear the snickering of little boys and the taunts of “whale” echo back at her.

But instead of choosing to forget the most painful time in her life, Faith has decided to make obesity her whole identity. She’s been featured in The New York Times, spoken at conferences and started her own nonprofit to raise awareness for the childhood obesity epidemic.

After Faith was interviewed for a local news station, commenters attacked Shannon and Jonathan, saying they committed child abuse by raising their daughter to be obese. That if they had just fed her different food, encouraged her to go outside and loved her more, it wouldn’t have been that way.

“People just don’t understand,” Shannon would say, crying on the phone to Faith.

“I know, that’s why I wake up and get out of bed every day.”

She can still hear the sentiments, the words repeated by condescending friends, teachers and doctors for years.

“Eat less, move more.”

“If you tried harder, wanted it more, you’d lose the weight.”

Some days, Faith wakes up and feels like she failed. Some days, she feels ashamed, like she still doesn’t deserve to take up the space her body is in. Some days, she wonders if she made the right decision at all.

But every day, she tells herself the same thing, a mantra that got her through the first 15 years and will carry her through the rest of her life: “My body is not a ‘success,’ it is not a ‘failure.’ This is just how I exist.”


Edited by Liz Johnson

UNC student moves beyond eating disorder, finds body confidence

By Molly Brice

Adjusting her headset, Joanna Kuang assesses the crowd in the studio, recognizing her regular attendees and noticing new faces. 

Kuang, a junior majoring in psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill and an aspiring psychiatrist, teaches weekly Pilates classes at Rams Head Recreation Center. On Sundays, she teaches her Pop Pilates class, a more cardio-intensive and lively version of traditional Pilates. 

Kuang’s thick black hair is tied neatly in a ponytail. The studio’s hardwood floor is covered by yoga mats with only small spaces peeking out between each participant. Even from the back of the studio, participants notice her contoured arms and toned legs.  

“The first few times was absolute terror,” Kuang said. “I felt like I was drowning.” That old but familiar trace of fear sits heavily in her stomach when she teaches a new section of choreography. 

Throughout the class, attendees watch Kuang closely to mimic her actions. Their inescapable glances follow Kuang with every subtle movement — any way she turns, she sees the reflection of their eyes in the studio’s mirrors.

Seven years earlier, Kuang would have shuddered at the idea of putting herself on display.

The slippery slope

During her freshman year at Horace Mann School in New York, Kuang slowly developed an eating disorder — joining the 2% of American females diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in their lifetime.

Like most high school freshmen, Kuang took biology. The teacher assigned a calorie counting lab that required students to track their food intake over a week. 

“No one came out of that lab understanding anything new about nutrition,” Kuang said. “All they knew was that they were eating too many calories.” 

“At first, I wanted to see how low I could get it and then it just sort of spiraled from there,” Kuang said. Like many people that suffer from anorexia, Kuang’s experience began with a quiet voice encouraging her to lose a couple of pounds, run a little more and eat a bit less.

“I’ve always been very hard on myself,” Kuang said. “When I want something, I go for it.”  Kuang’s internal drive has consistently motivated her to go the extra mile or two or three.

“Look at her Google calendar,” said Reeves Moseley, a junior who has been elected UNC-CH’s next student body president. “She is the epitome of a workhorse.”

In addition to managing Moseley’s campaign, Kuang has several other commitments: a part-time internship at the AHB Center for Behavioral Health and Wellness, a position on UNC Student Government’s mental health committee and a role as a research assistant with the department of psychology and neuroscience

“She works her butt off and never does anything halfway,” Sally Hammer, Kuang’s coworker at UNC-CH’s Student Recreation Center, said. 

Unfortunately, the same drive that has allowed Kuang to succeed in so many ways also detrimentally led to her eating disorder. 

“It’s a very slippery slope and all of a sudden you can’t stop,” Kuang said. 

Eating disorders develop gradually: skipping meals with friends, hiding food in napkins, lying about how much or how little one is eating, even diluting liquids to reduce calories.

Kuang learned to mix her milk with water, a tactic that allowed her to follow her mom’s rule of one glass of milk per day without the added calories. After experimenting, she found the appropriate ratio of water that kept the milk’s distinctive white color. 

Kuang worked through lunches in the library to avoid the questioning look of friends. She was happier alone where she could control what she was eating.

“Of course, this was reinforced because I would get compliments,” Kuang said, explaining how concerned friends also commended her slender figure and six-pack.

Journey toward recovery

This self-esteem high came to a crashing halt when Kuang’s body began to show physical signs of its malnourishment.

“My body just started to shut down,” Kuang said.  

Her hair, brittle from protein depletion, fell out. Her skin, callous from deficient vitamin intake, dried. Usually an exuberant person, Kuang felt her energy drain and her mood sadden. Sprains wouldn’t heal. No matter the temperature, Kuang felt a lingering cold in her bones that she couldn’t shake. 

At the end of her freshman year, Kuang was diagnosed with anorexia. As her friends traveled — eating whatever, whenever and however they pleased — Kuang’s parents monitored and prepared every one of her meals. 

“I was on a weight regaining journey,” Kuang said. As the rest of her family ate a bagel with cream cheese and eggs, Kuang ate two bagels, double the serving of eggs, a piece of fruit and an extra glass of milk poured by her mother. After a year of restricted eating, Kuang felt physically pained by this new diet. 

Eating disorder treatment is a long, arduous process of unlearning thought patterns and breaking detrimental habits. Eating and food is often only half the battle. 

“I couldn’t do anything that might resemble calorie burning,” Kuang said, “because they knew I would take it to an extreme.” 

Doctors advised Kuang to limit physical activity to the bare minimum. She could no longer run. She couldn’t even walk around the block. 

Behind closed doors, Kuang broke these rules. She retreated to her bedroom, locking the door, the doctor’s orders, her parents and the world out. Before falling asleep, Kuang would climb on her bed and start doing the math in her head, counting the number of crunches she’d need to do to compensate for the day’s calories. 

“Of course it did nothing, but it was psychologically soothing,” Kuang said.

Moving beyond

When Kuang started college at UNC-CH, she was in a  relapse prevention phase. This stage, as defined by the National Eating Disorders Association, is associated with the continued treatment of an eating disorder, which can be a chronic condition. 

Kuang wants to eat everything in sight some days, while on others, the sight, smell or even thought of food may feel overwhelming. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have an average relationship with food,” Kuang admitted.

At first, Kuang felt uncomfortable by the idea of a room full of people assessing her body’s movements during her Pop Pilates classes. Now, she embraces it.

“I think it’s been very healthy for my body image because I’m having to put myself and my body on display for people,” she said.

Panting internally, Kuang harnesses the adrenaline coursing through her muscles to push through the final workout. Kuang’s participants come to her class for the workout, but also her authenticity and ability to connect with her peers.

“One thing I really like about Jo is she’ll say when something hurts or is hard,” Jordan Killenberg, a UNC-CH sophomore and Pop Pilates attendee, said. “It really feels like she is taking the class with us.” 

Winding down, Kuang cues a slower song and starts to lead the stretches. To close her classes, she praises her attendees’ efforts, reminding them to feel grateful for their bodies’ hard work. 

Smiling, she looks out at their sweaty, reddened faces. “They’re looking to me for guidance,” Kuang said. “Being able to celebrate what my body is capable of doing is much more important than feeling self-conscious.” 

Edited by Rachel Crumpler and Maddie Fetsko


Program helps underrepresented students attain a higher education

By Molly Sprecher

Eesim Oon watched the UNC-Chapel Hill men’s basketball team win the national championship in 2009 from her house in Durham. Eleven years later, Oon still marks the date and score of every big game the team plays on a He’s Not Here cup she carried across the ocean to Madrid. She knew from that moment she wanted to go to UNC-CH. She knew from the first step performance she saw at Project Uplift that she finally could. 

Project Uplift is a two-day summer enrichment program that promotes higher education for students in underrepresented communities, often people of color. The University Office for Diversity and Inclusion sponsors the program, which is held at UNC-CH.

The program encourages students to apply to any four-year university that will best fit their needs. It also includes financial lectures that help put students in touch with resources for applying to college as well as for financial aid. 

“I realized then that there was maybe a group out there where I could belong,” Oon said. “I met a lot of mentors there because they were POC UNC students doing really incredible things. Now I’m older, and I’m sure they had their own doubts and struggles. But at the time, they were my idols because they seemed so amazing and attractive and as if they could do everything in the world.” 

No longer out of reach

Madison Boswell had always seen college as unattainable. She grew up following her father from one air force base to another, stressing over how to meet existing costs, let alone those that would come with a college education. 

UNC-CH was no longer just an idea. At Project Uplift, Boswell sat next to the one other person in the program who had  participated in speech and debate in high school. She explored parts of the campus she had seen in brochures and ended the day in one of the dorms.

“I knew I wanted to attend UNC when I felt at home on the campus,” Boswell said. “I was nervous at the start, but by the end I did not want to leave.” 

“The financial aid lecture was the moment that I knew I could go and wanted to go to UNC,” Elizabeth Ordonez, who participated in the program before enrolling, said. “As a low-income student, it was the first time I learned about the Carolina Covenant scholarship, and I felt like I could go to college without the burden of my socioeconomic status.” 

Boswell and Ordonez struggled to balance full-time jobs with their schoolwork. They mapped out what financial aid they would need and how many loans they could afford. They struggled throughout college to network and build professional skills while not being able to afford unpaid internships like many of their classmates. 

Project Uplift holds Tar Heel Talk Sessions to discuss these realities, along with identity, current events, and healthy lifestyles and relationships. 

Ordonez sat in the Latinx identity session and listened to others talk about how they had struggled with their own identity and found strength through it in a university setting. She talked to the president of what would become Mi Pueblo, the largest Latinx student organization at UNC-CH, which she herself would become president of four years later. She knew there was a space for her there. 

Other students could learn all they needed to at orientation. Ordonez needed Project Uplift to find diversity and resources to survive at UNC-CH.

Struggles with the goal

The diverse sector celebrated in Project Uplift is not reflected in the student body. Or even in the faculty. In contrast to 768 white professors, there are less than 140 professors of color. As 66% of the student body is white, many of the resources are not tailored for students of color.  

Oon attended UNC-CH from 2012 to 2016 after she participated in Project Uplift. She’d met a Nigerian student in the program who loved soccer almost as much as she did, and who also wanted to study abroad in Spain. They’d requested one another as roommates and moved into a room in Granville Towers. 

For the next two years, she dreamed of transferring out of the university she’d once dreamed of being a part of after being harassed by students because of her race. 

 “I believe that UNC as an institution is built to not support POC students,” Oon said. “I think UNC is doing well considering, but also, you know, the fact that they gave $2.5 million to the SCV [Sons of Confederate Veterans] doesn’t really indicate to me that they actually care about their students. UNC doesn’t do enough to address POC groups and concerns, especially considering how diverse they make it seem.” 

Oon stayed because of the Carolina Women’s Center, where employees like Cassidy Johnson help students of color identify cultural and gender violence that traditional resources at UNC-CH do not cover.  

While underrepresented groups struggle to find a community on a primarily white campus, diversity levels in post-secondary education are rising. 

In 1967, two years before the program began, less than .5% of the student body was black. Today, 11% of the student body is black or African American, a 2000% increase. The University Office for Diversity and Inclusion also created Uplift PLUS, a five-week version of the program. 

Hannah Isley, a first-generation college student who chose UNC-CH because of Project Uplift, is headed into her third year as a program counselor. 

“My goal as a counselor is to get to know the participants, and make sure that they know and feel like they belong at Carolina, or at college in general,” Isley said. “I want them to be encouraged and determined in their education goals, even if I’m the only person to ever promote them.” 

Counselors help organize culture shows where different groups on campus perform, as well as lead dance challenges that end in laughter. Like Isley, they all want to encourage the new students the way their counselors encouraged them. 

Isley listens to their stories. Their struggles and successes. She reads their essays and waits for each of their admission decisions. She smiles when she sees her students on campus, feeling like a proud mom.

“If someone wanted to get rid of the program, I would tell them that they’re giving up on thousands of students,” Isley said. “Students that deserve a chance but might not be offered one because of their circumstances. This program changes lives. Everyone deserves to attend college — not just a specific group of people.”  

Edited by Caleb Schmidt and Rachel Sauls

NC Botanical Garden’s beauty perseveres through all seasons

By Wilkins Swiger

 The chilling piano bars of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” played over auditorium speakers. A handful of people sitting around fold-out tables furrowed their brows at the development. In front of them were foil packages of miniature cookies scattered around glass pitchers of water. The last song was a ‘90s boy band hit. The one before that was an old country love ballad.

Janna Starr, facilities and events manager at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, watched everyone from behind her laptop, concealing her knowledge of the playlist behind an amused smile.

“They all have ‘heart’ in the title,” Starr said. “We thought about just playing a heartbeat pulse, but that might stress people out.”

Eating some of the cookies and drinking some of the water, the donors at the table were content. They were recuperating after giving blood at the Botanical Garden’s February Bloodroot Blood Drive, named after the ephemeral bloodroot that blooms this time of year. Donors were eligible to view a patch of them in the garden on a tour after donating.

The winter garden

On the day of the tour, the temperature outside was 52 degrees.

The first review of the Botanical Garden, posted three days ago, reads, “While winter isn’t the best time to view the NC Botanical Garden, it’s still a lovely place to visit any time of the year.” 

Director of Conservation Programs Johnny Randall and his team work hard for assessments like those.

“Winter is one of my favorite times in the garden,” Randall said, sitting around the cookie table, looking up through the skylights of the auditorium. “You get to see the bones of the garden. You get to see the architecture of trees.”

Randall has a doctorate in botany. After a stint as a professor at UNC Greensboro, he has spent the last 22 years at the Botanical Garden. 

He enjoys the winter at the garden for several reasons.

“If you ask the horticulture staff, they might say, ‘because you don’t have to be out weeding and tending the garden so much,’” Randall said.

After a smile, Randall said that there was still plenty to do in the winter to prepare for “the growing season.”

Becca Wait, landscape curator for the Botanical Garden’s entryway, agreed. Standing in the courtyard of the garden, she pointed out a cardinal that had just landed a few yards away.

“Winter is a great time for birdwatching,” Wait said. “The absence of leaves allows greater visibility when birds perch up in the trees.”

Pointing to outcroppings of dead, barren stems from smaller plants, Wait said the garden leaves those as bird perches as well.

The entry courtyard managed by Wait is the first plant space at the Botanical Garden, just beside the classrooms and the Reeves Auditorium where the blood drive was being held. Specific plant species are showcased, surrounded by wooden benches and chairs to invite guests.

Although there are benches throughout, the rest of the garden is radically different. It is a series of habitats, all from North Carolina, curated to be as natural as possible for the species native to them. In the middle of Chapel Hill, the garden keeps a patch of mountain habitat and a patch of North Carolina’s coastal plain habitat. There are habitats for North Carolinian carnivorous plants and poisonous plants as well.

“These are the plants that have been here since before Europe came in, [before] exotics and invasives,” Jennifer Peterson, associate director of communications at the garden, said.

Apologizing for the pun, she added that the garden is a place to “get back to our roots.”

At the head of one of the paths was one bloodroot flower, alone, even though they usually grow in a patch. Wait suspected that an ant had planted the seed there.

“They help out a lot around here,” Wait said.

The work to build a garden

Descending into the crossing paths of the garden, it appears kempt, but not tidy. It is more of a beautiful forest than an estate garden – there are no grass lawns or neat rows of bushes. Instead, the Botanical Garden aesthetics serve realism and sustainability. However, it still takes just as much effort.

“They put a lot of work into making sure these habitat gardens actually mimic those natural environments as much as possible,” Wait said. 

She pointed out the mountain section of the Garden where soil was imported from western North Carolina. The Botanical Garden acquired it as it was being scraped away from the earth for highway demolition projects.

A few minutes later, Wait stood over a patch of bloodroot. Only about 6 inches from the ground, each stem boasted a white flower just larger than a quarter. They will stay in that patch, drinking in the sunlight that comes through the leafless trees. By the spring, when the trees leaf out and shade the garden’s floor, the bloodroot plants will have already seeded and withered, ready to retreat back into the ground until next winter.

On the way out of the forest, smoke was floating through the bare trees like a thin fog. It started to smell like fire. It was the first sign of the controlled burn happening in the grassland’s habitat in a separate part of the Botanical Garden. This time of year was best for it, Wait said. The grasslands need the heat, or some of the seeds won’t open and propagate in the spring.

Through the woods it looked like an enormous mid-day bonfire. Peering in from behind the orange cones that marked the burn site, silhouettes of scientists and students stood staring into a perfectly square patch of fire.

The forest fire safety instructions instilled in the rest of the world would sound off internal alarm bells at the sight – the floor of the entire rest of the garden could hardly be seen through a layer of bone-dry debris – but the figures around the flames were stationary, watching. Year round, it is their job to keep the garden vibrant.

Edited by Suzanne Blake and Jess Bennett



Child actor finds ‘peaceful and structured life’ in Asheboro

By Savannah Cole

A bearded man often sits in the local coffee shop. He has blue eyes, dark hair and drives a black ’66 Mustang. Just by looking at him, people wouldn’t know that he was a childhood star.

Lane Toran, 37, is best known for his football-headed cartoon character, Arnold, from the television series “Hey Arnold!” He began acting when he was just 1 year old when he appeared in a J.C. Penney commercial.

At age 12, Toran booked his first lead role in the movie “Max is Missing.” Soon after, he became the voice of Arnold. He is also known for the voice of King Bob in the cartoon series “Recess.”

Toran became interested in acting as a kid. Both his parents were actors, so he got into the field at a young age.

His dad was on “Days of our Lives” for about a year and he did some other shows and movies. His mom did an episode on the original series “Beyond Westworld.” Toran had his first print agent by the age of 5 and his first voice-over agent by 11.

“I don’t know if I had a choice,” he chuckled.

Becoming Arnold

Toran loved cartoons as a child. “The Smurfs” and “Strawberry Shortcake” were his favorites. His mom would tape them on VHS and he would watch them over and over again.

He was beyond excited when his agent got him an audition for the voice of a character on the upcoming TV series “Hey Arnold!”

When Toran went in for auditions, he didn’t originally go in for the role of Arnold — that role had already been cast. When he finished the audition, they loved his voice so much that they decided to bring him back in for two or three more auditions to see if he could be their new Arnold.

When he got the call, he was ecstatic.

“I loved acting back then and it was sort of new to me,” he said, “so I was very excited when I found out that I was going to be the voice of Arnold.”

Being Arnold was “almost like playtime.” Toran went in once or twice a week to record. He got to hang out with the other kids that were doing voice-overs for other characters. They all became friends, so it didn’t feel like work to him.

Toran’s life was different than the average 12-year-old. He had to begin homeschooling in the seventh grade to accommodate his recording schedule.

Most of the time in an animated film or show, the actor comes in, records their part and leaves. But “Hey Arnold!” was different. Everyone came to record on the same day. Instead of doing the recordings in a booth by themselves, they all sat in a circle and recorded their parts together.

“Doing a voice-over is so much easier than acting in front of the camera,” Toran said.

Toran has done acting on- and off-camera, but found that he preferred doing voice-overs. When acting on-camera, the actors go through hair and makeup. When recording for animated works, actors come as they are. Since there’s not a camera pointed at them, they can always read off of the script if they forget their part, which is a privilege that on-camera actors don’t have.

Toran’s favorite episodes to record were “Arnold’s Christmas,” “Stoop Kid,” and “Breaking out Lockjaw”. He loved “Breaking out Lockjaw” because it was the episode where he and the grandma released the turtle from the zoo.

The actors that played Arnold’s grandparents were Dan Castellaneta and Tress Macneille, who both did voice-overs on the popular TV series “The Simpsons.” Castellaneta is the voice of Homer Simpson.

“It’s pretty cool that I got to work with so many talented people who went on to do shows and movies that are so popular,” Toran said.

“Hey Arnold!” was a great show for all ages — both children and adults loved it.

Sharon Culbreth, 45, remembers watching it when she was in her twenties.

“I remember the show very well,” she said. “I had my daughter in 1996 and remember watching it when I was at home with her after she was born.”

Sam Gribble, 20, said that he watched it when he was young.

“I remember watching it when I was little,” Gribble said. “Sometimes I still watch the re-runs.”

A change of scenery

Toran loved acting as a child, but when he was 16 he decided to take a break. He took a few more acting jobs until he made a big change in 2015.

He wanted to get away from the chaos of Los Angeles, so he moved to Asheboro, North Carolina, for a more “peaceful and structured life.”

“I’m not a huge fan of acting anymore,” Toran said. “I’d much rather be behind the camera.”

Recently, he directed, co-wrote, edited and colored an indie thriller called “Getaway.”

“The film is a typical horror film storyline but with many twists,” Toran said.

The movie will be available on iTunes and Amazon on April 14. Three to six months after it’s released, it will be available for streaming on Netflix.

Toran also creates Instagram content for various brands. When he isn’t behind the camera, he is working on his Mustang, Jolene, and blending in with the locals at his favorite coffee shop.

Edited by Anna Farmer

Full-time student, full-time mom: Navigating a new normal

By Samaria Parker

Crying could be heard from across the room. He was awake. Again.

It was the fourth time that night, and at this point Adele Williams wasn’t sure if her eyes were burning from lack of sleep or because she was about to start crying herself. It was probably both.

All she knew was that she had to do well on her psychology final and get Zeke back to sleep.

In the past few months, the ability to pull the all-nighters she had once been able to pull with ease had become more of a challenge.

Navigating z-scores, correlations and graphs was tricky enough, but combining that with the task of trying to understand the needs of the little human beside her was even trickier. Did he just want the pacifier? Did his diaper need to be changed? Was he hungry? He couldn’t be; she had just fed him. Did he just want to be held? This guessing game went on into the early morning as she tried to figure out how to best comfort her 5-month-old son. When all else failed, she would rock him, hoping he would take the pacifier, and quietly beg for him to fall back asleep.

Once he drifted back to sleep, Williams would settle back on the couch amongst her mess of notes, textbooks and highlighters, open her laptop and get back to the statistics.

As she stared at the screen, all she could think about was sleep. It was something she hadn’t gotten much of lately.

Not since all seven pounds, six ounces and 20.5 inches of Ezekiel “Zeke” Anthony Gipson came into the world, early in the morning, on July 8, 2019. It was like she traded in sleep for the new bundle of joy she held in her arms. It was worth it, but man, she was tired.

A change in plans

At the age of 20, Williams knew what her plans were: Graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill. Become a physician assistant. Get married. Have a baby.

But as Williams stood in the bathroom of the Campus Health Services building staring down at the positive pregnancy test in her hand, she knew her plan was going to be disrupted. The news brought no tears, just her silence and the buzzing of the fluorescent lights in the bathroom.

She imagined all the reactions she could have – crying, screaming, cursing. Instead, she stood still, staring down at the pregnancy test in her hand.

Without even giving it a second thought, she knew she was having the baby. The crushing guilt of getting rid of the child was enough to solidify her decision. So, as she came to terms with her new reality, she thought to herself: “Well, okay. Gotta get ready for it.” She grabbed her belongings, tossed the test in the trash and exited the bathroom.

Have a baby. Finish school. Become a physician assistant. Get married. Then have another baby.

Making calls for her future

Two weeks later, it was time to make the call. However, the call was not to her parents, for that call had already been made. This one was to her best friend, and somehow, she was equally as nervous.

As Williams waited for her friend of 14 years to pick up, she just knew she was going to be mad.

“I have something to tell you,” Williams paused for a moment before continuing. “I’m pregnant.”

To William’s surprise she didn’t sense any anger from the other side of the phone. Instead, Kianna Wilder fell quiet for a moment before saying, “Don’t let a baby be an excuse for you not to do the things you want to do.”

Williams wouldn’t, despite the number of questions that came with the following pregnancy announcements.

Are you dropping out? How are you going to stay in school? Are you planning on going back home? How do you plan on graduating?

The rounder her belly became, the quicker she was able to answer each question.

“No, I’m not dropping out.”

“Yes, I am going to stay in school.”

“No, I am not planning on going back home.”

While peers weren’t sure how she was going to be able to do it, William’s confidence remained unshaken. Baby or no baby, she had goals. Now, she had someone else to share them with.

It was no longer as simple as just wanting to graduate. Now, she needed to. She no longer just wanted to become a physician assistant. She now needed a job that would allow her baby to have everything he ever needed. She wanted the house, the husband and the career, and she planned on having it.

As her feet swelled and stomach grew with each passing week, Williams stayed in school. She studied hard, passed all her classes and kept her job at the school’s financial aid office. When July rolled around, she had Zeke.

The new normal

She was still a college student, but the baby she was now responsible for made her so different from her peers. She no longer had the luxury of thinking solely about herself.

While her peers are waking up, rolling out of bed, brushing their teeth, throwing on some clothes and heading to class, she is waking up twice as early to do the same routine for two. Brushing her and Zeke’s teeth, getting them both dressed, making sure they both eat and dropping Zeke off at daycare – all before she heads to campus for class.

The hours that Williams spent alone were most often spent in classes or at work. The rest of her time was now spent alongside Zeke. They do everything together. They watch YouTube videos together, play in the little ball pit set up in the living room together, they laugh together, cry together, take Instagram pictures together.

These are the moments, both good and bad, that she couldn’t imagine any other way.

No matter how many sleepless nights, missed parties or challenges Williams faced, the hard times always faded away as soon as she looked down at that cute little nose and those big eyes staring right back into hers. She knows life is just the way it should be.

“I always wanted to be a mom,” Williams said. “I didn’t think I would be one this early, but I look and I can’t believe I made this little person.”

Edited by Elisabeth Beauchamp