Having grown up with hysterical stories of my father’s college days, Animal House quotes including “7 years of college down the drain?!” and media sources ensuring that college is “the best four years of your life” (thanks to all the partying), I never expected college to be quite as revolutionary an experience as it was. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some pretty transformative experiences to date, and UNC certainly shines through as one of the places where I have truly been able to see myself grow.
I quickly discovered that time was best spent challenging myself to understand my convictions, cultivate my passions, and define success for myself. By no means was this easy. I surrounded myself with a community of brilliant minds and committed individuals who always appeared to be fulfilling their calling. I personally entered Carolina without a clue as to what my supposed “passion” was. Yes, something had gotten me there, but I wasn’t sure what.
UNC is a place that provides its students with the tools to uncover and foster “potential” for ourselves. For me, most of these discoveries have occurred outside the classroom. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I was disenchanted by my classes, those too were necessary in the trajectory of growth, but simply that I did not let school get in the way of my education. According to Gandhi, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of other.” So, I have come to define success in my life through my interactions with other people.
HOPE (Homeless Outreach Poverty Eradication) Gardens began defining my college experience the very first weekend of UNC. One of my very first memories at UNC is leading a rather tired looking group of fraternity brothers to “hand mow” of the over-grown orchard and “find the trees.” Things could only look up from there! HOPE Gardens is a student-run, hybrid community garden and urban farm that strives to create an equitable and resilient food system in our local community. Thanks to the encouragement of then new, now life-long friends, I was able to quickly apply to a leadership position. I spent my sophomore and junior year as a director of HOPE Gardens; we grew from a student garden that provided a transitional employment program for a few homeless individuals to a known community asset providing over 1,000 pounds of produce and nutrition classes to the homeless and low-income community throughout Orange County, North Carolina. In addition, my involvement with HOPE Gardens led me to join the Entrepreneurial Community at UNC. I learned about grant writing, starting an innovative social venture, giving pitch presentations, creating business plans, applying for Non-Profit incorporation, and establishing lasting partnerships within our neighborhood. This past year I joined the Chancellor’s Student Innovation Team, a group of UNC students dedicated to advancing Entrepreneurial opportunities on campus and advocating for these needs by advising our Chancellor, campus leaders, and local policy makers.
In four years we incubated many different projects: our mission has remained consistent but our vision shifted with each new energetic dream. Actively seeking ideas from fresh minds and encouraging everyone to accomplish their goals is what sets HOPE Gardens apart. Dennis Whittle, UNC’s entrepreneur in residence, enabled me to view this as a unique asset; I began making concentrated efforts for leadership development. He told me that “a good leader is someone who works themselves out of a job.” I could not imagine what my life would be without directing HOPE Gardens, but I took his advice. Spending time investing in other people’s potential and helping them identify how to utilize their talents has come to define my leadership style. I know if I did my job right – if I was empowering my staff – when I trusted that a future leader could do what I do…and do it better.
The greatest difficulty of any student organization is its transient population; a lot of institutional knowledge gets lost in the weeds. I became so committed to knowing everything and being connected to everyone that I was burning out, and what is more, was rapidly losing the perspective of all the new staff members with those fresh ideas that I so deeply cherished. Eventually, I studied abroad, in part, because I knew that I could not take a lesser role in the Garden without being physically disconnected from it. It was hard for my to leave the Garden, and hard too for the rest of staff. I learned too late that I had to leave when the organization was ready for me to leave, not the other way around. But I had nothing to fear because the new leaders were doing what I did, and better! Of course I had a pang of disappointment, was I not needed here anymore? No, I still had a place within the organization and I too had my own unique set of skills to bring to the table. I just had to learn execute them with a new style of unofficial leadership. More importantly, I had to give these leaders the opportunity to empower me. And they rocked it. I could not be more proud of a group of people or an organization than this one.
Thanks to the Morehead-Cain scholarship, these lessons continued in to each summer. Before starting college I spent 30 days mountaineering in the Wind-River Range of Wyoming. There I learned much self-reliance and perseverance. Every day was simultaneously the greatest challenge I had ever faced and the most thrilling adventure I ever would have. NOLS quickly became a month long test to everything I knew and accepted about myself. Optimistic by nature, I had to find a way to visually stay positive even when feeling like I was going to pass out. I pride myself in never giving up, and it terrified me just how much I wanted to quit some days. Every day was filled with “Type 2 fun”. The feelings of accomplishment, gained experience, and a pure adrenaline rush overpower the heightened fears: the illusion of fun. Sometimes in the wilderness this is better than the real thing. That ability to derive pleasure and simple joy from unlikely circumstances has continued to serve me well.
For my public service summer I was a volunteer teacher in Tamil Nadu, India. Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project is a residential school that educates students from India’s Dalit, or untouchable caste, for 13 years of their lives and develops them in to outstanding young citizens. The goal is to end the cruel cycle of poverty and class oppression by showing the world the success of children from the Dalit caste. I was teaching English literature, grammar, spelling and writing for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. The best thing about that summer (aside from all the incredibly delicious vegetarian Indian food) was my students. They may have tired me out on a regular basis, but their energy is one of their best qualities. Every single student is passionate about something. Whether dominating on the soccer field or explaining their favorite story word for word, everyone put their whole heart into what they loved. I was challenged to develop culturally conscious applications of material and classroom management, but did so with a dedication to preparing my students for their futures.
After a week of getting to know my students’ personalities, I developed cross-curricular projects that would excite them. My first persuasive writing assignment for the 6th graders was a mock-fundraising letter campaign. Each student devised a plan to raise money to help the poor or the sick. For example, Kishore wanted help getting elected onto the Supreme Court so he could stop child trafficking. I was blown away by their compassion for others and determination to pursue such socially conscious dreams. I realized that my students had overcome more in half my lifetime than I will ever face. I loved teaching because I could see them making connections. Their is a beauty to the reciprocal relationship of teaching and learning. Reciprocity is now a quality I strive for in all my actions.
After witnessing extreme poverty that summer, and discussing oppression in an academic setting as a Women and Gender Studies major, I developed distrust for organizations with power. In order to overcome this, I sought to spend my following summer discovering the beneficial role that businesses can play in social and environmental change. I spent my summer living in Chapel Hill and sustaining HOPE Gardens while interning in Raleigh at Cherokee Investment Partners, an environmental private equity firm founded by a Morehead alum. Cherokee proved to me that business can do good and informed me that making profit is not a bad thing. I began to see business as a productive model for social change and to more actively question my assumptions about business, entrepreneurship and non-profits. As an intern I got to participate in way more than I would have imagined. Most of my time was spent working on research for an individual’s project. I learned an incredible amount about the Solar Renewable Energy program in Massachusetts in order to create a brief report to present to the head-bosses before they made an investment decision. I got to conduct an internal audit of the Environmental Management System which will be used when the auditor comes to Cherokee. Working for Cherokee was one of the best life learning opportunities, the work was so drastically different from anything I have done before but thanks to the supportive staff, I never felt at a disadvantage.
This past summer I worked to understand the administration of grassroots non-profit organizations by volunteering with an HIV clinic in Kampala, Uganda. This clinic is one of the best models for HIV care that I have ever seen. They are able to provide each of their clients with the best medicine, attention, and support. They have multiple large donations coming in regularly and successfully utilize their funds. The love that each doctor shows in their work means that every patient has a fighting chance. AMS is changing the lives of 11,000 people on a daily basis. They are the reason why people who had once lost hope are now thriving and they are actively ending the transmission of HIV from mother to child.
The highlight of my summer was getting to know the community of and around the clinic. AMS is a family, and being so graciously welcomed in to it made all the difference for my summer. They immediately took us under their wing, showed us their lives, and invited us to become a part of it. We were invited to a wedding ceremony for one of the doctor’s friends and got to participate in those celebrations. We made friends with some of the youth clients and played with neighborhood children every day. Each moment where I actually began to feel like I belonged, where I forgot about being a foreigner, were the ones I enjoyed the most. I learned more about cultural competence and living abroad than I did about non-profit administration, but every day was a new opportunity to grow and to engage.
But of course, I was at college, so that whole classes thing had to happen too. The North Carolina Fellows program became a bridge between academia and my extracurriculars. We began as a group of 24 curious first years who thought a program asking about our biggest failure and the worst problem facing our world today was at least worth an application. As sophomores we had a seminar for three hours once a week which can only be described as the “pursuit of betterness.” We grappled with the philosophy in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and debated Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine argument. In fact, we debated a lot of things. Are we capable of caring about people we have no personal connection to? Should we care? What is the highest form of service? What do we value and why? The list goes on. In fact, the list continued to grow for another three years. During sophomore seminar, and then again this year in our senior capstone, we also each got to share our own personal Chautauqua. We each had 20 minutes to talk at the class with their undivided attention, and share with them whatever it was we needed to share. It is impossible to describe what this group of people became throughout my time at Carolina, but perhaps the photo above can give a brief glimpse in to our Fellows Family.
I loved being challenged in my beliefs and stimulated in my thoughts, so tried to only take the classes that interested me. I didn’t declare a major until it was absolutely necessary. I took Women’s Studies 101, followed by “Leadership in Interpersonal Violence Prevention,” and knew that I had to major Gender Studies. While presenting research this spring at a the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association conference, I realized how much I was going to miss that academic environment and smiled at how perfect my academic course of study had been for me. I learned that every injustice in this world intersects. Identity is something that we all hold as deeply important and personal to who we are, and yet so often that is the source of oppression and pain. I became intrigued by the overwhelmingly positive and yet challenging implications of our globalizing world. By putting my experiences abroad in context with my studies, I discovered that my freedom as a young woman, intellectual, and traveler is inherently embedded in the liberation of my global neighbors.
These lessons and realizations permeated throughout all my courses of study: in my Anthropology major and in classes with the school of Education. I became involved in the Southern Oral History Program through a class on documenting the life stories of neighbors experiencing gentrification in the historically black community of Chapel Hill. From there I deepened my interviewing skills as I taught a class to fellow undergraduates on conducting and using oral histories to understand the current state of Public Higher Education. The academics I experienced at UNC, although rarely the first thing I’ll talk about, were stellar. More importantly, the professors and classmates that challenged me to work through the course material are truly who set this experience apart.
Most importantly, my friends are who have made me a Tar Heel. The love, compassion, energy, and care that they have showed each and every day is more than the “Carolina Way.” I cannot possibly begin to describe how much they have meant to me over the past four years, and I know will continue to mean to me in many more to come. From countless breakfast dates to star gazing nights, these are the people responsible for helping me become the person I am today. Hark the Sound.