The 270 high school students gathered on the Connor front lawn are there for icebreakers – fun activities for these Project Uplift participants to get to know each other and their counselors. Students in one group clasp hands across a huddle and then gradually unwind themselves without letting go of the other person’s hands. Next to them, students in a circle take turns shouting out the names of places that start with A: “Alaska. Alabama. Argentina.”
But Ben Smith, 16, is a one-person icebreaker. “Want to be on my Snapchat?” says the tall guy in khakis, striped shirt and a white cap. He produces a smart phone with a crack in the corner and tilts it back and forth, taking photos of first the visitor and then himself, three time.
Smith had to rise before dawn to get here from Anson County, a rural area that lies between Charlotte and Southern Pines. One of his coaches (Smith plays basketball and football) drove 2½-hours to deliver him for the early morning check-in.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” he says. Like nearly all of the Project Uplift students, Smith would be the first student in his family to go to college. He may not know much about college, but he knows where he wants to go. “I’m hoping to attend this lovely campus.”
For nearly 50 years, Project Uplift has given students like Smith a small taste of college life. They will sleep in a residence hall, eat in a dining hall, attend classes and interact with faculty, staff and students. The intense two-day program is designed with diversity in mind, targeting African American, Native American, Latino/Hispanic, Asian American, low income and rural students.
Just as important, Project Uplift allows these students to see themselves in the faces of the people leading the program. Nearly all of the program’s counselors are Project Uplift graduates themselves, as are the two student coordinators. So are recruitment coordinator Rachel Tates and Ada Wilson Suitt, director of inclusive student excellence, both in the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.
“One of my favorite things about PU is the diversity of the students and staff,” Tates says. “Everyone has a story and a unique perspective or experience that you can learn from. You can learn all that you want in a classroom or from a book, but you will learn some of the best lessons from those around you.”
Classes and more
The Project Uplift students, driven inside by the summer heat, are early for their classroom experience, a Naval Science 101 class taught in Wilson Hall. As they wait for the instructor to arrive, they pepper the counselors – college students or recent graduates themselves clad in matching Carolina blue Keys to Success T-shirts – about college life.
When do you have to declare a major? Do you have a job and how do you balance that with school? What’s the most challenging part of college? How did you figure out what you wanted to do? Does college change you dramatically? Did you participate in study abroad?
“This is really my dream school. I love it. It just has a homey feeling,” says Chyna Walker, 17, of Charlotte, who wants to major in journalism. She was junior class president last year and will be student body vice president this fall. “I’m a leader, and I want to keep those leadership skills.”
Walker wants more than academic success for her college experience. “It helps you to realize who you are,” she says. “So far, I’ve gained a lot of insight. When Ms. Tates talked about the Keys to Success, what she said about being steadfast and being positive, those are things you can use in high school or just in life.”
Lt. Simon Miller, in an olive drab flight suit, arrives on time to teach a class on the organization of the U.S. military and point out the advantages of participating in ROTC.
Smith, seated front row center, asks about joint forces early in Miller’s lecture. But by the time the instructor reaches the topic, Smith has fallen asleep, long legs stretched out, perhaps as a result of rising so early that morning.
“That’s OK,” Miller says cheerfully. “It just means I’m boring.”
Not just Carolina
As the groups finish their lectures, they stream into the Student Union for a college fair. Although Project Uplift is a Carolina program done in conjunction with Undergraduate Admissions, it’s not intended just to recruit future Tar Heels. The emphasis is on going to college, any college that is a good fit.
So the Great Hall is set with tables offering information on East Carolina and Appalachian State, Queens University and UNC-Greensboro as well as Carolina admissions and professional schools. Autumn Logan, 17, of Gastonia, checked out the East Carolina table. “I want to see what different opportunities are out there,” says Logan, who wants to be a pediatrician or a neonatal intensive care nurse.
“This is my favorite part so far,” says Quan Nguyen, 17, of Durham, who just signed up for a newsletter from the Carolina Asian Students Association. “I want to major in pharmacy here and become a pharmacist. My second choice is UNC-Charlotte.”
The four Rs
The speaker who welcomed students to the last Project Uplift session of the summer is yet another program graduate, Amy Locklear Hertel of the Lumbee and Coharie tribes. Today she is director of the American Indian Center and clinical assistant professor at the School of Social Work, but she told the students, “I can tell you, back in 1992, I sat in the exact seats where you are today.”
In her talk, Hertel shared four values of indigenous knowledge: relationship, responsibility, reciprocity and redistribution, emphasizing the importance of giving back to the community.
“In many societies, the value derived from a good, from a skill, from a trait, from one’s career is not in its possession but in its giving away and sharing with others,” she tells the students. “And giving is not done with a sense of charity or superiority, but instead occurs within a larger context. One day you may give and one day you may receive.”
Smith is awake for Hertel’s message and keenly aware of this balance. The young man from Anson County is interested in many subjects – criminal justice, math, history, science – but what he really wants to be is a coach at a high school like the one he currently attends. That’s because Smith has a coach who mentors him, who even takes half a day to drive him to Chapel Hill so he can register for Project Uplift on time.
One day, Smith will be that coach. “Not just a coach or teacher, but someone to look up to,” he says. “I want to be a great mentor, someone the players can talk to and get advice from.”