A life-changing experience for students

Though she had been a Carolina fan all her life, Sierra Atwater had been reluctant to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She had grown up nearby in Pittsboro and her parents are Carolina alumni. Atwater had wanted to move farther away and create her own college experience, not relive that of her parents.

Then, two years ago, she attended Project Uplift at Carolina and changed her mind.

“It actually is the reason why I applied to the University,” said Atwater, who is now a sophomore at UNC and is conducting research this summer at Johns Hopkins University. “This made me realize Carolina can be somewhere else for me. It can be a lot of things for a lot of people.”

Through Project Uplift, about 1,000 rising high school seniors from underrepresented populations spend two days on campus. The annual program is targeted for students who are high-achieving and academically competitive and are African American, American Indian, Asian American or Latina/o, or who are first-generation college students or come from low-income families, rural communities or other historically underserved populations.

The high school students take mock classes, meet with faculty and staff, learn about the admissions process and how financial aid works, meet with representatives from student organizations, watch a cultural show and get to know one another.

The program is meant to be an access point for many of the students who might not otherwise apply to Carolina and to get them immersed in the culture and climate on campus, organizers say.

“Project Uplift brings the students on campus to let them see that they do have an opportunity to be successful here,” said Margie Scott, an administrative support specialist in Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. Scott has worked closely with recruitment and “Inclusive Student Excellence” in the department for 10 years and plays a major role in making sure the participants make it to the program.

Project Uplift celebrated its 45th anniversary this year with a two-day reunion in May. The program began in 1969 when a group of students wanted to enhance diversity on campus. Since then, thousands of high school students have participated in Project Uplift, and many of them ended up attending Carolina.

“The moment when they call me and say, ‘Ms. Ada, I got in, I have my letter,’ there is no feeling like it in the world because we know that we put our heart into something and we saw a goal accomplished,” said Ada Suitt, the inclusive student excellence director in Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. Suitt is a former Project Uplift participant who went on to attend, and graduate from, UNC.

A key component of Project Uplift’s success is the 60 UNC students who serve as counselors and handle administrative tasks for the program. In fact, Suitt said, the most the important aspect of Project Uplift is the one-on-one communication the participants have with the counselors.

Many, like Angel Washington, are Project Uplift alumni themselves. Washington, a junior global studies major from Kinston, N.C., is now the on-campus coordinator. On a recent day, she watched as the UNC counselors led new Project Uplift participants in cheers and other ice-breaker activities, including twisting themselves into a human knot.

Washington said she had made up her mind that she was going to UNC-Charlotte when she participated in Project Uplift a few years ago. Like Atwater, she had changed her mind at the end of the two days.

“I knew Carolina is where I wanted to be and if I did not get accepted, I did not know where I would go,” Washington said.

Both the UNC student counselors and the high school participants benefit equally from the program, Suitt said, because it helps the counselors feel even more a part of the campus community.

“When we talk about Project Uplift, we are talking about lives being changed for high school students and also lives being changed for current UNC students,” she said, “and I think that is the power and the beauty of the program.”

Video by Rob Holliday, text by Natalie Vizuete and photos by Dan Sears, of University Relations.

Published June 25, 2014.