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Around Campus

Recognizing Carolina’s work-study students

Each year, the Workie Awards recognize some of the best, most interesting and most distinctive work-study jobs at Carolina.

Ryker Smith and Ehmu Ra.
The winners of the Workie Award for student of the year were Ryker Smith and Ehmu Ra.

When Ehmu Ra began looking for a work-study position in the fall, her primary focus was finding a job where she could give back to the community.

More specifically, she wanted a job where she could help refugees in the area.

“I wanted to be their resource,” said Ra, who herself is a refugee from Burma.

She didn’t spend hours working with the Chapel Hill Refugee Community Partnership for the awards or for public recognition, but her work behind the scenes ultimately earned her the title of Carolina’s student worker of the year.

Ra, along with sophomore Ryker Smith, were recently awarded the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid’s Student of the Year Workie Award for their dedication to their work-study positions. Each year, the Workie Awards recognize some of the best, most interesting and most distinctive work-study jobs at Carolina.

The complete list of this year’s Workie Awards winners includes:

  • Supervisor of the Year, Abby Ward
  • Coolest Job of the Year
    • AcaDames Podcast executive producer
    • Student researcher in the UNC Gene Therapy Center
    • Virtual reality service attendant at the House Undergraduate Library
  • Most Distinctive Job of the Year, America Counts/America Reads literacy tutors

“The work-study program is designed to help college students prepare for real-world jobs and build the skills they need to be successful after they leave Carolina,” said Josh Leonard, assistant director for operations and employment programs in the financial aid office. “Many exceptional students do hard work day after day to get ready for their careers. It’s essential that we recognize what they’re contributing to the community, to the University and to the state.”

The federal work-study program, bolstered by Carolina’s investment in student employment, offers more than 2,400 students the chance to earn a portion of their college funding through part-time jobs on campus or in the surrounding community. The positions range from lab assistants to costume designers to bilingual tutors in local schools.

Making connections in the lab

As a sophomore biology major, Ryker Smith thought he was still a couple years away from conducting impactful research. But with an undergraduate research assistant work-study position in the University’s Deshmukh Lab, he’s helping neuroscientists better understand how various diseases impact the brain.

“It’s been incredible being able to learn about lab techniques and how Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s affect our brains and do my own part to help figure out how it all works so that we can eventually find treatment,” he said.

In his work-study role, Smith primarily works as a lab technician assisting researchers in their projects. The position allows him to tap into what he’s learning in the classroom and apply it to hands-on work.

“A lot of the research methods that I use in my lab, I’ve learned directly from my classes, and there’s stuff that I learned in the lab that I can use in my class,” he said.

The experience, Smith said, is more than just a job. It’s been a critical learning experience that’s introduced him to mentors, reshaped his research goals and led him to change his major.

“Because I was consistently exposed to these biological wet lab techniques and studies, I realized that this is more of what I want to do rather than what I was doing in chemistry,” Smith said. “It’s mind-boggling to me that I’m the age that I am and I’m directly working with neurons.”

Giving back to the community

Officially the philanthropist coordinator and account administrator at the Chapel Hill Refugee Community Partnership, Ehmu Ra is more a jack-of-all-trades for the organization, which provides support for area refugees.

Ra manages payroll, serves as a translator, relays crucial information to community members, manages databases and works on multiple projects, including one that encourages students in the refugee community to pursue higher education.

Each week, she connects refugees with critical information and resources to help them navigate their new community by working directly with them.

“They always bring me happiness,” said Ra, a junior studying sociology.

With aspirations of becoming a social worker, Ra said the work-study position has provided crucial insight into her future career.

“Working with the Refugee Community Partnership really gave me hands-on learning in social work, helping prepare for the real world,” Ra said.