With enrichment fund grants, students ‘bring it back’

Suicide claims an estimated 36,000 lives a year in the United States.

Despite that daunting statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one Carolina student is confronting the problem on a personal level.

Viviana Bonilla-Lopez became certified as an online counseling and suicide intervention specialist through the IMAlive Online Crisis Network. In the process, “I was able to challenge my own misunderstandings related to suicide and learn how to support my friends and peers,” she said in her blog.

Although society does not encourage people to talk about their anguish, Bonilla-Lopez said, she learned to help people combat their pain and fear – and possibly prevent a tragedy – by doing just that. Because a willingness to talk about suicide can literally mean the difference between life and death, she said, “what I learned was that all I need to do is ask.”

The journalism and mass communication major now serves as co-chair of Rethink: Psychiatric Illness at UNC, a student organization she co-founded in 2011 that helps students understand mental illness, how to access resources at Carolina and how to be affirming friends and peers. What Bonilla-Lopez learned through the IMAlive certification process was invaluable in developing the curriculum for Rethink, she said.

She is one of 50 students who have benefited from a Jon Curtis Student Enrichment Fund (SEF) grant.

This student-led initiative of Student Government, the Carolina Union, Student Affairs and the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid provides monthly grants of $200 to $600 so students can pursue their interests away from campus, and then use what they learn to benefit the Carolina community. Any student can apply for a grant, regardless of major, year or other affiliations.

The “bring it back” aspect of the program is its hallmark, said SEF co-chair Sakib Huq, a senior biology major. “The program is unique in that it shows that you can make a difference in someone’s life with great impact, but with a relatively small amount of money,” he said.

The causes are as varied as the students themselves.

Maya Kiel, a double major in global studies and Romance languages, used her SEF grant to attend Water Missions International’s Walk for Water last spring in Charleston with other members of UNICEF at Carolina. The goal: to learn how to plan a similar water walk at Carolina this year.

The annual event promotes the spread of clean water resources around the world, and the 3.5-mile walk simulates the average distance that women and children have to walk each day to obtain clean water. Participants can choose to carry buckets of water from the halfway point back to the finish line to experience the women’s plight firsthand.

“Ambitious as we were, the buckets weighed us down by the end of the walk,” Kiel said in her blog. “However, prompted by volunteers with motivational signs with facts about water, we managed not to spill any water on the way back to the finish line!”

Kiel plans to host a similar, albeit smaller, event at Carolina to raise money for UNICEF’s Tap Project.

SEF co-chair Megan Thomas, a psychology major, said that she and Huq see their leadership roles as a way to “pay it forward.”

As Morehead-Cain Scholars, “many doors were opened for us,” Thomas said, and the pair wants to do the same for others. “Reading the applications for students who want to help other students really gives us a greater appreciation for all that Carolina students are involved in.”

Hannah Kerner will use her SEF grant to travel a little farther from campus than most recipients.

Next month, she will go to Leicester, England, for the National Student Space Conference, geared toward the United Kingdom-wide branch of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). Its sister organization, SEDS USA, has chapters at more than 40 U.S. universities, including Carolina.

Kerner is both chair of SEDS USA and president of the University’s chapter, UNC SEDS.

When UNC SEDS hosts the national conference of SEDS USA (called SpaceVision) in November, the computer science major will use her experience at the UK conference to help the Carolina students plan SpaceVision, which is entirely run by students.

Selecting Carolina as the host for SpaceVision is an “immense achievement and honor for our chapter,” Kerner said, particularly since UNC has no space studies department, as some other universities in the country have.

Read more about the projects of these and other SEF recipients and learn more about the fund – named for former longtime Carolina Union administrator Jon Curtis – and how to support it.

By Patty Courtright, University Gazette
Published March 10, 2014.