First class

Hope Alfaro very nearly left college.

After growing up in Valdese, N.C., earning her way to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and working all the way to her junior year, she hit a roadblock that felt immovable.

“You think you’re a good student in high school — you are a good student in high school — but college is completely different,” she recalled. Alfaro was struggling through the toughest classes she’d ever encountered, wondering whether she made a mistake by coming to Carolina. Her family felt far away, and the road forward looked too steep to continue.

“I took a semester off, and I really wasn’t planning to return.”

It was an email that brought her back. Or rather, a lot of emails. The late Fred Clark, academic coordinator for the Carolina Covenant during its first decade, was relentless.

“He kept emailing me, kept sending me information about all the Carolina Covenant events, kept telling me I had to come back,” Alfaro said. “I finally came in to meet with him just so he’d stop emailing me.”

Alfaro had come to Carolina in the fall of 2004, joining the first class of the newly launched Carolina Covenant, a financial aid and support program for low-income students. The core of the Covenant is a no-loans financial aid offer — a series of grants, scholarships and work-study funding that gives students a chance to graduate without debt.

But as Alfaro found out, the Covenant — which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this weekend — is about more than money. Through academic advisors like Clark, along with designated aid counselors, faculty and staff mentors, and a whole series of events and workshops, the program creates a very personal web of support for scholars.

“Fred finally sat me down in his office and said, ‘Look, you’re going to graduate,’” Alfaro remembered. “He laid out a path, made me look at it, and I did it. By my last semester, I was on the dean’s list.”

FINDING MEANINGcovenantSidebarBox

Like many in that first class of Covenant Scholars, Alfaro’s path through college and the years beyond required patience and resilience. But for these students, the vanguard of Carolina’s most celebrated access program, the last decade has brought remarkable results.

  • For Alfaro, that means an engaging, highly rewarding job as a market researcher for the Chapel Hill-based Futures Company. It also means a family, a home of her own, and the resources to help her mother go back to school for an accounting degree.
  • For Vesall Nourani, who connected with faculty mentors through his Covenant-sponsored work-study job, it means a prestigious graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation and the chance to earn his economics Ph.D at Cornell.

“I’ve been able to work and save up,” Nourani said. “Being in graduate school now and having a family, that really helps.” Nourani’s’s son Faizi, though not yet old enough to talk, has already spent plenty of time on the university campus in Ithaca.

  • For Christie Trice, who held a job at a mall toy store to help with family finances during high school, the Covenant has meant a chance to serve as a civil rights advocate, with only her law school loans to repay.

“If I didn’t have the Covenant, I can’t imagine how I could have gone straight through to law school,” Trice said. “I would have been so overwhelmed with worry about the money.”

Like all Carolina graduates, the paths of Covenant alumni have been shaped by the books read, the people met and the skills learned in Chapel Hill. But their decisions have also been formed by the financial freedom and the personal outreach that are the hallmarks of the Carolina Covenant.

FULFILLING PROMISES, FULFILLING LIVES

The job that first interested Trice in social and economic justice was a Covenant-identified placement with SunTrust Bank’s community development division. Shirley Ort, the director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid and the driving force behind the creation of the Carolina Covenant, personally recommended the position to Christie.

“Shirley connected me with someone at SunTrust, and that job was so good for me,” Christie recalled. “I felt like I was actually doing something worthwhile, and I loved it.”

Today, Trice devotes that same energy to her work as an attorney for Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, the storied civil rights firm based in Charlotte. She handles cases that are both professionally challenging and emotionally taxing, confronting issues of wrongful death, police misconduct, and other forms of civil litigation.

“These are cases that really matter to me,” Trice said. “I know how hard it is to get in a position where you can do this kind of work and still pay the bills. I feel like I can be exactly who I am and still be an effective advocate.”

Nourani, too, has been able to organize his post-graduate life to focus on work and research that matters deeply to him. He found a position at Durham-based RTI International immediately after graduation, a job he landed in part on the strength of an undergraduate thesis in political science. He eventually moved to a part-time role at RTI in order to volunteer with a Durham nonprofit focused on support networks for young people.

“I was able to go part-time at RTI, to spend time volunteering and contributing back to the community, in large part because I had no college debt,” Nourani said. “Without the Covenant, that would have been a lot different.”

Nourani’s research at Cornell is a fascinating blend of the hard economics skills he honed at RTI and the community building experience through the Durham youth program. He is studying the links between developing world economic growth, social networks, and social learning. “I’m studying the way relationships and community matter,” Nourani said. “The way they influence how people see themselves, and how people make decisions.”

That same ethos — of building relationships, of welcoming students from all backgrounds fully into the Carolina community — continues to drive the Covenant.

Beginning this spring, Covenant alumni will host a regular series of workshops for the newest generation of scholars, passing along the advice, the connections and the reassurance gathered over the past decade.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years,” Alfaro said. “ I’m thrilled for the chance to give back.”

Especially after deciding to come back.

Story by Eric Johnson, Office of Scholarships & Student Aid

Published October 21, 2014