Enthusiastic UNC student leaders clad in “I AM Project Uplift” t-shirts fill the stage at the Student Union’s Great Hall to give the roomful of rising high school seniors a taste of what to expect over the next two days. This high-achieving group of high schoolers is participating in Project Uplift, the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion’s signature Summer Enrichment Institute program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Project Uplift offers classroom sessions, cultural events, discussions, networking with professors and current students and the chance for students to experience dorm life.
“We’re about to tell you something…about UNC,” the leaders sing, to the tune of Lil’ Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” stomping their feet in unison, building the energy in the room and getting the audience to chant, “I am PU!” and “PU 50!”
As the fervor builds, Project Uplift Director Rachel Tates sets the message and tone of the program. She explains to the students that this year’s theme, “I AM Project Uplift,” is reflective of the idea that Project Uplift participants have a shared experience and, therefore, shared pieces of their identity. Rachel then explains that as Project Uplift students, these scholars share in three pieces of their identity – One: Hustlers, Two: College Material and Three: Worthy. Adding emphasis to the last piece, she exclaims to the audience, “You are worthy!” She hammers the message home, saying, “You’re worthy to be here, worthy to go to college, worthy to be in any space you want to be in. It’s very important to know your worth. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
The excitement ripples through the crowd as participants are reminded of their value…and the value of a college education. The swaying, dancing and laughing participants at this opening ceremony, one cohort of many and a fraction of the more than 1,000 students in this year’s Project Uplift (PU) program, are about to embark on an eye-opening journey into on-campus life that will provide them with an introductory college experience like no other. For many of them, these two days will be life changing.
Their jam-packed agenda includes a well-planned blend of educational and recreational events designed to provide a balance that emulates a condensed version of college life. The schedule includes academic lectures, a college and resource fair, wellness discussions with current students, talent shows, SAT/ACT prep, a college enrollment workshop, mock seminars, recreational activities, a cultural program…and the ever-popular “Throwdown Thursday.”
Occurring on their first evening, Throwdown Thursday is designed to allow the students to become more comfortable in the PU setting. The event begins with counselors performing a variety of acts that have included piano medleys, African dancing, lip sync battles and a recreation of Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” opening sequence. Then the participants are involved in such competitions as the “Woah Challenge,” singing and Bachata dancing.
Afterwards, the students are more comfortable with each other and ready to participate in Tar Heels Talk sessions. These intimate discussions, facilitated in small groups, cover a variety of topics surrounding identity, current events and healthy lifestyles and relationships. “These sessions resonate so much with the participants because they are able to share their stories and learn about different cultures and identities,” says Rachel. “For many of them, this is their first time having these types of conversations.”
Indeed, allowing a space for open, honest and revealing dialogue is pivotal. It’s a heady experience for these teens, many of whom had never set foot on a college campus before. Nadine Jallal, from Knightdale, Wake County, was particularly appreciative. “I had some misconceptions about UNC,” she admitted. “I didn’t know how different religions and races would be appreciated. But nobody was judging or mean.”
Project Uplift’s Full Academic, Recreational and Cultural Agenda
By the end of their first night, the mentally stimulated and physically exhausted students are ready to return to their residence halls for some well-needed rest before tackling the next day’s events. Up by 7 a.m. for assembly and breakfast, they attend an SAT/ACT prep class, followed by back-to-back seminars about tuition, financial aid and scholarships, as well as the college application process. Then, they move on to one of six academic sessions. These sessions are designed for hands-on or group activities that allow students to learn by experience. Taught by faculty, sessions cover a variety of fields so that students have a choice of a topic that appeals to them as a possible focus when they eventually matriculate into college.
At the Undergraduate Library, some students attend “Social Media Graphic Design Principles and Tips,” an upbeat session that invites students to use digital library resources to prepare a social media graphic based on their hometown. Students eagerly access digital library archives to search for imagery. Across campus, students are placed in small groups and tasked with creating a business or enterprise that creates something for the public good. Other courses include “Using Diffraction as a Measurement Tool,” “An Inexplicable Disease,” “Cancer Biology,” and “Business Values.”
With their brains churning on overdrive, the young scholars finish these sessions and head off to their much-needed recreational activity. They have a choice of tennis, basketball or volleyball through which they will work up a sweat (or they could exercise their couch potato skills by playing video games or watching a movie). By the time they finish dinner and participate in the cultural show, student talent show and extravaganza dance party, they have made new friends, considered new perspectives and solidified their own concept of higher education.
“Being surrounded by a diverse group of individuals was super-engaging and enlightening,” said one student. Another commented, “Project Uplift has made me look at life from a different perspective. I feel more prepared for college, and I do not feel as nervous for the admissions process as I did before. I also feel more prepared for taking the SAT than I did before.” Maleea Shelby, of Moore, was equally wowed. “I’ve been on other college trips,” she said, “but I haven’t seen anything like the activities they do here.”
Project Uplift’s History
Now considered among the most respected college outreach and recruitment programs in the country, Project Uplift had humble beginnings half a century ago as a way to inspire high-achieving Black high school students to contemplate higher education. “It started as just five UNC students going around the community and asking people if they had children interested in learning more about UNC,” says Gretchen C. Bellamy, senior director of Education, Operations and Initiatives. “They’d invite them to stay in their dorms. And look at it now!”
It has since grown in its scope and target audience, becoming more inclusive of people of all underrepresented identities. Over the last 50 years, Project Uplift has impacted the lives of over 40,000 young people. PU’s aim is not necessarily to have students apply to UNC. Instead, says, Gretchen, “Its goal is to instill the importance of higher education no matter where the students ultimately go. The program gives them access to valuable information and builds their confidence in navigating and charting their course in the college application and decision-making processes. Students leave PU with insights through the more personalized conversation and interactions, which are invaluable to them and key to the success of the program.”
Five years ago, the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion identified a need to create an expanded version of PU, which gave birth to Uplift PLUS, an elevated five-week, on-campus, summer program for PU participants with particularly impressive academic credentials. An impressive 64% of students who participate in Uplift Plus matriculate into Carolina. This year, 38 students will take a college level English course and participate in daily classroom and networking activities that will provide them with even greater access to success, particularly at UNC-Chapel Hill. “For those students who participate in Uplift PLUS, of course, they gain practical skills and three college credits. However, equally valuable are the test prep and the relationships the students forge during their five-week stay on campus,” says Gretchen, noting, “For participants in both programs, the level of personal growth is significant.”
Resulting success stories abound. One of the most notable was Michael Jordan, who wore a Carolina blue jersey to victory. According to the New York Times, it was Project Uplift rather than comparative basketball records that made him choose to matriculate at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I saw Carolina as a student,” he said, “not as an athlete.”
Shauna Cooper, associate professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at UNC, was also influenced by her time at Project Uplift. She wrote on her Twitter page, “Appreciating a full circle moment…Project Uplift convinced me that UNC was the undergrad institution for me…A lot of years later, I am back as a faculty member. Welcome to the 2019 cohort of Project Uplift!”
Associate Director of Admissions Damon Toone, who led parent sessions to help address questions about the college admissions process, is also a graduate of Project Uplift. As a student volunteer in 1990, he found that he really enjoyed talking about Carolina, his admissions process and providing positive messages about college attendance. Although he was initially involved in corporate America post-graduation, his experiences with PU brought him back to UNC. “Project Uplift remains one of the most influential reasons why I work in higher education,” he says proudly. “There’s a level of hope and celebration and a push towards success that is infectious. The student leaders often confirm that we make good admissions decisions and those that receive [support during their college experience] are willing to serve.”
His experience was so impactful that it has extended to the next generation: Though he is quick to note that she chose her own path, his youngest child, Dasia, is now serving as a PU student leader.
For Rachel Tates, who was a member of the PU student leadership team from 2013 to 2015, then became a coordinator for PU before taking over the director position, watching students complete the program is particularly rewarding. “The most meaningful part of the program for me is seeing the transformation in the students’ outlook on themselves and their potential to in such a short period of time,” she says. “Students come in on Thursday unsure and leave on Saturday more confident in themselves and their ability to go to college.”
Hustlers. College material. Worthy. Project Uplift has ensured that these qualified and confident students have higher education firmly in their grasp.