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

Reminiscing on a Carolina win after Blue Devils stun the Tar Heels

By Tamiya Troy

Calia Johnson stared at the television as there were 16 seconds left on the clock in overtime. The score was UNC 96, Duke University 93. She eased into a daydream.

On this day two years ago, she went to her first Carolina versus Duke basketball game. She originally didn’t win a ticket through the lottery, but a friend found a ticket for her to attend the game.

Too excited to think, she stood in the mirror then ransacked her closet to find an outfit. She wore a Carolina blue shirt, black pants, a grey scarf and a black North Face jacket. She wore Uggs and brought earmuffs and gloves to wear as she waited in line.

She walked up the hill to the Smith Center and saw lines of shivering students. The lines were wrapped around the entire building, and she didn’t know if she wanted to wait that long. “I saw Roy Williams through the basketball museum windows and I knew it’d be worth it,” Calia said. “I realized I didn’t mind waiting two hours for something I looked forward to my whole life.”

The cool air against her face was nothing compared to the warm feeling throughout her body. When she finally entered the arena, she could feel the anticipation in the air. There was a sea of Carolina blue faces, t-shirts, foam fingers and towels. Her heart filled with joy and she smiled from ear to ear.

Calia attended almost every home basketball game that season and this was the one she was most excited to experience. She was used to sitting in the first row of the student section at every game, so she didn’t know what to expect. Sitting in the nosebleeds wasn’t ideal, but Calia cared more about being present.

The Smith Center was dark. People pulled out their phones and prepared for the light show. Across the arena, the cellphone lights flashed in sync as Michael Jordan, Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye appeared on the jumbotrons. Cheers filled the air while highlights from the unforgettable 2017 National Championship win played in the video.

The teams walked onto the court. It was officially game time. The fans stood the entire game, watching as both teams hustled across the court. By halftime, Carolina fans had their hands on top of their heads, standing in distress. UNC was down by four.

But any true Carolina fan knew that the team would pull through. The scores were close. The fans were restless. With 15 seconds left, Carolina had a five-point lead and possession of the ball. People started to gather their belongings in preparation for what was to come.

Seconds passed by and screams began to fill the atmosphere.

The clock hit zero, and the arena erupted with excitement. Carolina defeated Duke 82-78. The stress and anxiety of the game turned into joy. Calia grabbed her friends as they jumped and yelled into their cameras. She couldn’t believe that she had experienced her first Carolina versus Duke win.

People hastily ran out of the Smith Center. They didn’t even bother singing the alma mater, which is typically sung after a Carolina win.

The Carolina fans that filled the arena had one place in mind. More than four decades ago fans rushed Franklin Street for the first time. Today, they still run to Franklin Street to celebrate a win over Duke or a championship game.

Calia and her friends joined the crowd. It would take about 25 minutes to reach Franklin Street, but her heart was beating fast and time was moving slow. They waited eagerly for people to exit the arena.

When they finally reached the pavement, they walked up the Skipper Bowles hill, thinking about how to avoid getting tired too quickly. News stations were parked at every curb. There were so many people and no way to run around the barricades.

They walked through SASB Plaza, past Chase Hall and Kenan Stadium. As they approached the Bell Tower, they began to run. “At that moment, I knew it was real,” Calia said. “I would never run this far across campus for anything else.”

You could hear crowds screaming from every direction. Their journey consisted of sporadic chants of “Tar… Heels!” They ran through the Pit, past the Old Well and by Silent Sam. Despite slowly running out of breath, they continued their trek until they reached Franklin Street.

Students are not the only ones who rush Franklin Street. Fans young and old, as well as health and safety professionals line the street to rally and ensure safe celebration.

Members of the Critical Incident Response Team, like Aisha Pridgen, were also running toward Franklin Street, but for a different reason. “I remember my colleagues and I trying to figure out the best route to beat the crowd,” Aisha said. “But the bonfires and fireworks had already started by the time we arrived.”

Calia weaved through thousands of people, searching for her friends. “We kept trying to call them, but the signal was so bad,” Calia said. Every time they got through one crowd of people, they found themselves in the middle of another. She started to lose hope.

Music was playing, people were dancing and everyone was screaming. “It was a huge mosh pit that I thought I’d get lost in,” Calia said. Unexpectedly, she spotted her friends standing at the corner of Franklin Street and Colombia Street, in front of Lotsa. She ran toward them, screaming with excitement. They laughed, cried and took pictures together in the middle of the chaos.

The energy was at an all-time high and she couldn’t believe her eyes. She interacted with random people as if she had known them her entire life. The fact that some people never experience the Franklin Street rush was absurd to her.

As she looked around, people were standing on things, climbing light poles and holding friends on their shoulders. The only thing everyone cared about was the win over Duke. They spotted the bonfire and decided to join the crowd. One…two…three! She jumped over the fire and everyone cheered. “It was electrifying. I felt like I was dreaming,” Calia said.

She knew that this was the epitome of the Carolina experience.

It hit Johnson that this experience would be incredibly different than the 2018 game she attended.

As she shifted back to reality, the clock hit zero seconds. Duke defeated Carolina 98-96.

Tears filled her eyes, and at that moment, she realized that she wouldn’t experience the thrill this time around.

Edited by Rachel Sauls