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Good deeds and leadership highlight Polk’s 37-year career in admissions

Barbara Polk is one of six University employees to earn a 2018 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

Barbara Polk
Barbara Polk (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Before Barbara Polk began her 37-year career at Carolina, she was a student here who considered transferring. Instead, she stayed, graduated and began working here. Tens of thousands of college-bound students whom she has helped should be thankful she stayed.

“I haven’t transferred yet,” Polk said.

The Statesville native, who is Carolina’s deputy director of undergraduate admissions, served with five directors and also served as interim director and acting director at two different times. She worked in and oversaw every aspect of admissions: application evaluation, communications, international applications, recruitment, publications, special talents (athletics, music, drama) and high school counselor relations.

Polk is one of six University employees to earn a 2018 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Polk said. “It’s not a singular honor because I don’t work by myself. I’m the one fortunate enough to receive the recognition, but I share the award with everyone I work with across campus.”

A 1979 graduate and member of the Order of the Golden Fleece, Polk began her first job in 1980 in Student Affairs. She had duties in orientation, peer counseling, the international center and academic counseling.

As that job ended, her last-minute application snagged an assistant admissions director’s job. The staff and budget were small, compared to today. Polk remembers when the quarterly budget cycle halted the admissions process. “We’d made decisions, folded the letters, put them in envelopes, but at the end of the quarter we had no money to mail them.”

Kind acts and leadership

Budgets and much more have changed, but Polk’s gift for helping students remains constant. Her kind acts include shepherding an admitted student injured in an auto accident, welcoming a work-study student with lunch and opening the office to students waiting for an overdue bus on a frigid day. “Barbara’s good deeds have typically taken place behind the scenes and out of the limelight,” said Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and admissions. “She has done them out of love for the University and the goodness of her heart.”

That humanity informs her leadership. Fifteen years ago, when elite schools took pride in having an early-decision program, she pushed for Carolina to end the practice. “Barbara argued that this practice coerced students into making commitments before they were truly ready to do so, denying them the chance to explore other opportunities, change and grow during their senior year of high school. Her argument took real courage, but carried the day,” Farmer said.

Polk honed her work ethic, commitment and leadership qualities through long, early-career weeks.

“She has traveled to nearly every community in the state,” Farmer said. “A native of North Carolina, she knows better than most the beacon of hope Carolina represents to people from all walks of life. She is as comfortable, respectful and effective counseling a first-generation college student as she is talking with the child of a fourth-generation alumnus, and she wants no less for one than the other.”

Troubling trends

As an admissions veteran, Polk has seen many trends, some of which trouble her.

“When I started, before rankings became a big deal, students from all over North Carolina wanted to come here. We focused on them and looked for diamonds in the rough from smaller communities. We had between 10- and 12,000 applications; this year we had 43,000.

“The frenzy about college admissions has increased phenomenally. It’s not healthy for students and their families because, for many, it’s gone from what’s the best match for a student to what’s the highest ranked school a student can get into.”

Regardless of their college dreams, even for high schoolers who aren’t considering Carolina, Polk will help them.

Lissa Broome, Burton Craige Professor of Law and member of the Faculty Committee on Special Talent, a subcommittee
of the Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Admissions, sees Polk as “a wonderful ambassador for the University, sharing her expertise on the college admissions process and guiding any student interested in college, not just college at UNC–Chapel Hill.”

Broome noted Polk’s ability to evaluate academic potential and advise athletic coaches. “I have watched Barbara interact with the Department of Athletics, coaches and administrators to identify student-athletes who will be successful,” Broome’s nomination letter stated.

Diamonds in the rough

Polk said that she is grateful for the University’s commitment to diversity through globalization and to finding “diamonds in the rough from parts of the state without resources that a Mecklenburg or Wake or Orange county have.”

Evaluating applicants is judicious work, Polk said. “We try to understand students in the context of their school, in the context of the applicant pool and also within their life experiences. If they seem to have advantages in life, what have they done with those advantages? If they have been disadvantaged, how do they face challenges? Students are amazing at overcoming adversity. How they deal with things can leave a big impression when reading an application.

“I’ve believed in what this University is trying to accomplish and the experience it gives to students. For example, the commitment we have to providing students with opportunities for public service and research. Those are two major threads in Carolina’s tapestry.”

Polk retires in August, the beginning of year 38. “It’s time to take a break, renew energy and do some volunteer work,” she said.

Bottomless candy bowls

Carolina’s students will be hardest for her to leave. She’s increased interaction with them over the years by keeping two large, seemingly bottomless bowls of candy in her office. “Lots of students work with us as ambassadors or work-study students. It’s so good to sit and talk with them, to help them through difficult times or just have them come in for candy.

“We’re fortunate that our tremendous staff wants to continue growing, learning and developing. We say that we’re family and when you work here, you will always be family. I’ve been lucky to work with family through the years.”