Strengthening student success

A new grant is funding an initiative to make summer internship, research, service- and global-learning opportunities more accessible for low-income students at Carolina.

The Old Well with the sun shining behind it.
(Photo by Melanie Busbee/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“Finances are the center of [what] I plan my summers around.”

“I want to do unpaid internships, but they take up too much time that I could be working.”

“I’m a junior and I feel behind.”

Carolina Covenant students shared these sentiments — and more — in response to a survey conducted in spring 2021 to assess their experiences at UNC-Chapel Hill, including bridges and barriers to success.

The Carolina Covenant provides qualifying students the opportunity to graduate debt-free through a combination of scholarships, work-study and grants over the fall and spring semesters. The program also offers a system of support, opportunities and resources to help scholars thrive on campus and beyond.

“These survey responses are a reminder that while the Covenant has made great advances in leveling the playing field for low-income students at Carolina, disparities still exist that require our attention,” said Candice Powell ’06, ’21 (Ph.D.), director of the Carolina Covenant.

Carolina Covenant Scholars often need to forgo career-advancing experiences —internships, pivotal coursework, undergraduate research and global opportunities — in favor of less meaningful jobs to cover expenses. This is especially true during the summer months when less financial aid is available to cover the cost of enrollment, housing, meals and travel.

A $250,000 grant from Strada Education Network is supporting a new initiative launched in fall 2021 seeking to address disparities in summer funding and career development experiences for Carolina Covenant Scholars. The initiative — called Connecting Carolina Covenant Scholars — is designed to help students successfully pursue and secure competitive careers in the post-pandemic economy.

A key effort in this initiative is the Career Accelerator Program, which guides students through career readiness experiences offered through University Career Services and connects them to mentors, liaisons in professional schools, and alumni in their fields of interest. The Strada Education Network grant will support approximately 50 Carolina Covenant Scholars in the program to engage them in meaningful career-enhancing experiences over the summer of 2022. Students will benefit from guided support and mentorship from a network of resources.

“These grant funds from Strada are a critical advancement in making summer internship, research, service and global-learning opportunities more accessible for low-income students,” said Powell. “This effort will also help our university continue its commitment to making meaningful career-preparation experiences a part of every Carolina student’s story and our work to ensure that income is not a barrier to access, opportunity and engagement.”

Connecting Carolina Covenant Scholars aligns with three objectives of the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good — Build Our Community Together, Strengthen Student Success and Enable Career Development. Carolina Covenant Scholars come from families at or below 200% of the federal poverty line and make up more than 10% of all undergraduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill. With more than 50% identifying as first-generation college students and persons of color, Carolina Covenant Scholars represent one of the largest and most diverse groups of the University’s undergraduate population.

“Achieving this grant represents a major step forward in our institutional capacity to improve career opportunities for our historically underrepresented students and enable them to succeed beyond Carolina in a rapidly changing environment,” emphasized UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz.

The impact

“Being a low-income student often means making sacrifices and decisions to make ends meet,” shared Carolina Covenant Scholar M. Olivia Ingram ’22, an intern and peer mentor for both the Carolina Covenant and Lookout Scholars programs. “For me, summers often mean accepting jobs to pay the bills and turning down opportunities that are more closely aligned with my career development goals.”

Ingram said that as a peer coach for the Career Accelerator Program, she hears similar stories from others who feel the need to choose between a salary and a career-advancing experience.

“Now, I am blessed to share with them the opportunity to transform their summer experience into something intentional, educational and developmental,” she said “The wonderful opportunities made available through this grant allow students to dream big and pursue experiences that will further their goals and development. I look forward to exploring career-focused courses, trips abroad, internships and more with these hard-working scholars.”

UNC-Chapel Hill was one of 15 institutions selected to receive an innovation grant from Strada’s $10 million Beyond Completion Challenge. The challenge aims to help higher education institutions identify and expand new solutions that will improve career and life opportunities for more students of color, first-generation students, those who struggle to afford education, and adult students and workers. Strada partnered with the Taskforce of Higher Education and Opportunity — a collective of 37 organizations, including UNC-Chapel Hill — to address the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, rising income inequality and the changing nature of work.

“As we recover from a worldwide pandemic, we understand that our economy and our education system are changing dramatically,” said Ruth Watkins, president of Strada Impact. “We must shift our focus beyond completion of credentials and degrees. The Beyond Completion Challenge was designed not just to come up with new ideas for how to achieve that goal, but to put resources behind them so that more students can benefit. We were delighted with the quality of the proposals and are thrilled to support this terrific work.”

In the coming months, taskforce members and innovation grant recipients will share information about what’s working to help students succeed beyond degree completion. Later this year, these phase-one grant recipients will be invited to compete for additional funding to expand their work.

Achieving success

Support from individuals, corporations and nonprofits for programs like the Carolina Covenant and the Connecting Carolina Covenant Scholars initiative are critical for strengthening student success and for accomplishing the goals outlined in the University’s strategic plan.

Powell, the Covenant’s director, expressed gratitude for the many University partners who helped make this project successful: University Career Services, the General Alumni Association, Innovate Carolina, the University Development Office, the Division of Enrollment and Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, the Office of the Chancellor, and the Carolina Covenant Student Advisory Council.

“The goals of the Connecting Carolina Covenant Scholars initiative will be achieved through a multi-prong approach,” Powell shared. “We are grateful for the support of our partners and the champions who are helping to advance efforts that enable Carolina Covenant Scholars to successfully pursue and secure competitive careers in the post-pandemic economy.”