Beating the odds: C-STEP helps student to degree, law school

Roy Dawson, who turns 30 on April 28, was always incredibly bright, but the odds were stacked against him when it came to college.

He grew up in Alamance County, the son of hard-working parents. His mother managed a restaurant, and his father worked as a roofer and dishwasher. Still there never seemed to be enough money.

To help ends meet, he got a job at a sandwich shop when he was 14. And even though he dropped out of high school to help pay the bills, Dawson still earned a diploma at the same time as his classmates by taking night classes as Alamance Community College. Then he went to work in nearby Swepsonville, at Honda Power Equipment, living on his own.

Dawson moved back home to care for his mother, Delores, when she contracted severe neuropathy, a condition that started with redness and tingling in her hands and feet that soon affected her ability to use them. As his mother improved, she encouraged him to live at home expense-free and to enroll at Alamance Community College.

That’s where Dawson discovered the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP), a way for him to earn the college degree he thought was impossible to achieve. Maybe he could even go on to be a lawyer, like his TV hero Matlock.

In C-STEP, talented low- and moderate-income students are guaranteed admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill if they enroll at Alamance or Carteret community college or Durham, Fayetteville or Wake technical community college and complete the program. Carolina also guarantees to meet 100 percent of every admitted student’s financial need through grants, scholarships and loans.

From the moment she read his first personal memoir for her expository writing class, Maria Baskin knew Dawson was an ideal candidate for C-STEP. His essay, “Waiting Is the Hardest Part,” about a day he spent in school dreading a promised beating from a bully, touched her with its honesty and clarity. When he read it to the class, the other students burst into applause. “I knew he was a diamond in the rough,” Baskin said.

She approached Dawson after class to tell him about C-STEP and refer him to an Alamance C-STEP adviser, Perry Hardison.

“These are students who have been mugged by reality,” Hardison said. “They’ve pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and they have a maturity and a work ethic that you may not see in a typical college student.”

But C-STEP students also face special challenges. They may have more bills to pay than a typical student, or have a family to support. As they make the transition to college, these transfers – unlike first-year students – are taking junior-level courses in their majors. And since they have taken detours and are often the first in their families to go to college, they don’t have the same kind of support network.

C-STEP advisers guide students in taking the right courses to transfer to Carolina, and they help smooth the cultural transition. Dawson’s adviser, a Carolina alumnus and Chapel Hill resident, led his students on “tours, from the Dean Dome all the way to Franklin Street,” Dawson said. He and his peers saw a performance of the New York Philharmonic and a play, while other C-STEP students attended a football game.

“It served as motivation,” he said. “It made you want to hurry up and get here.”

When Dawson did get to Carolina, he decided, at 28, that he was too old to share a dorm room with an 18-year-old, so he went to Rams Village, where he shares a four-bedroom apartment with three students. The classes were as tough as he had been warned about, but he buckled down and has maintained a 3.7 GPA, with a major in political science on a pre-law track. “That first semester wakes you up,” he said, “but it’s really satisfying when you realize you are on that level with the others in your class.”

Dawson wants to be a criminal defense attorney because he has read so much about wrongful convictions.

“I want to become part of the system to fix the system,” he said.

The senior has also committed to give back to C-STEP as much as he has received, by being a peer mentor to other students, speaking to community college faculty about challenging their students – even to UNC President Tom Ross and members of the North Carolina General Assembly. Because of his encouragement, his sister, Maria, is now enrolled at Alamance Community College.

His mother, who has recovered enough to get around the house, is looking forward to attending Dawson’s graduation in May. “I thank God every day for C-STEP,” she said. “If it wasn’t for C-STEP, I don’t know what we would have done.”

But Dawson also credits his mom for what he’s been able to accomplish. “She always knew I was capable of it,” he said. “She saw the opportunity to make my life better. She saw the benefit before I did.”

Now he has beaten the odds again by being accepted into the UNC School of Law. After waiting for four months to hear the verdict, he checked the status of his application before his criminal law class started and read the welcome word, “Congratulations.” He called his mom immediately, and Delores cried for the next 30 minutes.

“I cannot tell you what it means to make it into UNC Law,” Dawson said. “It is the single greatest thing to ever happen to me. My dream is coming true.”

C-STEP supports the Innovate@Carolina Roadmap, UNC’s plan to help Carolina become a world leader in launching university-born ideas for the good of society.