A cool, crisp November breeze wafts through the air as nearly 300 middle school students from 17 North Carolina schools make their way through UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. They’ve made pit stops at the football stadium, Old Well and the Pit, and have met Carolina’s mascot, Rameses. Their awe at being part of this experience continues as they continue their campus tour. Some gaze around in fascination at the historical buildings towering above, their bricks and magnificent facades seeming as if they were pulled from a storybook. Others engage in playful banter with their friends as they hurry to reach the rest of the group. Finally, the students find themselves ensconced in a large, college lecture hall. Their excited chatter immediately fades into silence as they anxiously glance towards the front of the room, eyeing the words “How do Tar Heels Lead?” displayed on a large screen.
This presentation is part of just one of many sessions featured over the course of UNC’s Tar Heel Preview Day, an event that provides middle schoolers from underrepresented ethnic and cultural backgrounds the opportunity to experience college with the hopes that higher education will remain a goal. The program is one of Diversity & Inclusion’s many outreach initiatives, with support from the Alumni Committee on Racial & Ethnic Diversity (ACRED). Along with academic sessions, the students have the chance to tour the campus, have hands-on educational experiences, and enjoy a typical college lunch in Chase Dining Hall.
Sharbari Dey, Assistant Director of Education and Special Initiatives at the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion, enters the room to begin the session. Although she is not new to delivering presentations, Dey must think creatively when it comes to capturing the attention of middle schoolers. She opens the session with an interactive activity to give them a chance to express their ideas. At first, they are reluctant to speak, but within 10 minutes, many are eager to participate. When asked about the qualities of a good leader, they respond with zeal – “Bravery,” says one. “Integrity,” says another. “Perseverance! Determination! Open-mindedness,” they call out, as they warm up to the lesson. It is not lost to an observer that these words also describe the qualities we look for in our fellow Tar Heels.
The rest of Dey’s presentation focuses on three major points: the importance of empathy, group communication, and dynamic problem-solving skills. Through group discussion, team-building exercises, and thought-provoking videos, the boys are able to practice important leadership skills that they can use throughout their lives.
After an entertaining and informative 90 minutes, the session comes to a close. Although the students appeared overwhelmed at the beginning, by the end of the session not a trace of anxiety remains. Instead, while walking across campus the students exude confidence knowing that once this day is over, the memories of Carolina will last a lifetime.
This newfound confidence is part of the reason why the program is so crucial. Dey notes the importance of Tar Heel Preview Day, saying, “I think it is critically important for all students, especially those from marginalized communities, to hear very early in their educational journey that college is the norm and not the exception.”
In addition to her workshop, the participants engaged in a variety of academic sessions with faculty and staff across campus. Some of these sessions include taking vital signs with representatives from the School of Nursing, playing “College Jeopardy” with Undergraduate Admissions, exploring exhibits at the Ackland Arts Museum, exploring the intersection of community and public relations in professional sports with the School of Media and Journalism, and much more.
When they pile back on to their school buses at day’s end, they have digested memories designed to be lasting and impactful. “I hope students remember their time at Tar Heel Preview Day where they felt valued and heard,” says Dey. “I also hope they feel as though they too can be part of the academic enterprise and make important contributions to the society and their communities.”
By Brittany Grant