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Carolina Covenant

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Scholar Profile:
Elizabeth Atwell

Elizabeth Atwell at Open Eye Cafe in Carrboro

Elizabeth Atwell learned the virtues of hard work long before arriving at Carolina. Before she ever had to study for a midterm or work half the night on a thesis paper, she had to contend with a literal mountain of chores.

“I grew up in this little house on a hill, with nothing but mountain forest all around,” she said. “I learned to chop wood when I was about eight. It took me a while to realize most kids weren’t doing three hours of work every afternoon.”

Those childhood experiences near Valle Crucis, North Carolina, have served her well. The work ethic instilled on a mountainside carried over into the classroom, and Elizabeth finished high school with a highly competitive transcript.

The youngest of four sisters, Elizabeth originally planned to attend college outside of her home state. But financial hardship caused her to reconsider.

“I was originally planning to go up north, but then my Mom got very sick,” she said. “Suddenly it made a lot of sense to stay in North Carolina, and the Covenant made UNC an easy decision.”

Four years later, as she nears the end of her time at Carolina, she hasn’t regretted the choice. “Anything you could possibly love or have a passion for, you can find it here,” she said. “No one is going to hold your hand or make decisions for you, but the opportunities are there.”

From her earliest days on campus, Elizabeth has taken full advantage of those opportunities. She originally wanted to study medicine, but a survey course in women’s studies introduced her to the realm of public policy.

“I wanted to be a doctor for all of the hokey reasons that people want to be doctors. I wanted to help people, to make the world a better place.” That motivation hasn’t changed, but Elizabeth’s coursework in public policy led her to a broader view of making a difference in the world.

“Some of those classes really shifted my frame, changed how I see the world,” she said. “I was so impressed to be with all of these people who were not only knowledgeable, but were acting on it.”

As graduation nears, she is considering jobs in public health and economic development. And thanks to summer internships spent working abroad, her search isn’t limited to the United States. Through international organizations and UNC grants, she has already traveled to Rawanda and Uganda for development and aid projects.

“I’m glad to have that kind of experience, because I know that sort of work isn’t for everyone,” she said. “I’ve been in tough situations, gotten very sick, had to figure out how to handle things in a developing country.”Working on development projects as an undergraduate has also given her a clear-eyed view of how difficult such work can be, especially for outside organizations.

“As a nineteen year-old, I was really excited about it. But you very quickly learn how much you don’t know,” she said. “There are all of these practical and ethical considerations when you’re working in a developing country, especially when you’re coming in as an outsider. Those are hard lessons, but good lessons.”

The combination of Covenant grants and work-study has helped ensure that Elizabeth can consider a whole range of options for her first career move.

“I have nothing I need to pay next year other than my living expenses, and that’s incredibly freeing,” she said. “I’m beyond grateful to know that I have room to try some things, try some different jobs, without having this huge debt to pay off.”