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