Covenant Scholar owes success to Mom

Somehow, with three jobs and five mouths to feed, single parent Brenda Brooks of Charlotte saved her kids from the streets.

“My mom made sure that school came first,” says her son Teon Brooks. “She provided me with everything I needed to be a student.”

Her devotion has produced a bright future for her youngest. Teon Brooks earned a UNC degree in 2009 as a Carolina Covenant Scholar. The Covenant makes college possible debt free for qualified low-income students.

Brooks was the first in his family to graduate from college and will be the first to attend graduate school. He’s been awarded three merit fellowships for doctoral studies at New York University.

“These opportunities were made possible with the education I was afforded at Carolina,” Brooks wrote to thank Chancellor Holden Thorp. “I was able to find myself and my passions in such an accepting and thriving community … my family could not afford to send me to college, and the Covenant … greatly reduced the stress of college expenses.”

Brooks has earned a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship; an NYU Opportunity Fellowship; and an NYU MacCracken Fellowship. With additional grants he hopes to obtain later, Brooks expects to have enough funding for five years –time enough for a doctorate.

“Carolina has many highly intelligent, hardworking, intellectually rigorous undergraduates,” says Peter C. Gordon, a UNC psychology professor whose lab Brooks manages. “As faculty, we are lucky enough to work with them, and many go on to the best graduate programs in the country. Teon is one of them.”

Brooks began his career at another university, thanks to financial aid. But he discovered that the physics and math that had attracted him there were not his passion. What enchanted him was English: “I had always noticed that language had this elegant order to it.” And his university did not have an undergraduate linguistics major.

Brooks surfed the website of the UNC linguistics department, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, and was impressed with the faculty. He transferred to UNC, but without the money to continue his education.

Enter the Carolina Covenant. It allows qualified low-income students like Brooks to enroll without worrying about how they will pay. By working in federal work-study jobs, they can graduate debt-free. They also receive academic and personal support services to help them succeed.

“The Psychology of Language,” taught by associate professor of psychology Jennifer Arnold, exposed Brooks to studies of how the brain recognizes words. Besides linguistics, he picked up a second major, psychology, also in the College.

One work-study job took him to the Language, Cognition and Brain Lab, which he has managed since 2009. There, eye movements and brain waves are tracked to discover how people perceive language. Brooks hopes to discover ways to help close the achievement gap between African-American and other students in grade school.

He attributes his success to his mother: “She put in all this work. This is the least I can do to repay her. She is my motivation. I want to make her proud.”