Skip to content

Carolina Covenant

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Carolina Covenant adds mentoring program

In September 2004, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill expanded its groundbreaking Carolina Covenant initiative to ensure that even more low-income Carolina students can graduate debt-free.

Now the university has taken steps to ensure that these undergraduates also have the guidance, counsel and encouragement of a mentor to achieve success.

Through a new mentoring program, Carolina Covenant Scholars can be matched with a volunteer faculty member to support them in their daily lives and help them further engage with the Carolina campus. The goal is to support student success and graduation.

The Carolina Covenant, which welcomed the first class of 225 students to campus last fall, gives low-income students who are admitted the opportunity to pursue a degree without having to incur debt.

UNC became the first major public university to announce plans for such a program in fall 2003. Since then, several universities, including Virginia, Maryland, Nebraska, Harvard and Brown, have created or announced plans for similar programs.

National studies and the university’s own research show that low and lower-middle income students are likely to face challenges that other students do not. More than half of the Carolina Covenant Scholars are the first in their family to attend college. Few have had the travel or cultural enrichment experiences of their more affluent peers. Many, particularly those from rural communities, find a major university to be a very large place.

“Carolina is dedicated to helping Covenant Scholars make a successful transition into the university,” said Dr. Fred Clark, associate dean of academic services and faculty coordinator of the mentorship program. “Many of our Carolina Covenant Scholars are first-generation and attended small schools. College can be an overwhelming experience for them.”

Clark, also a professor of Romance languages in the College of Arts and Sciences, said he could personally relate to some of what these students might have experienced in their first months at Carolina.

“I’m a first-generation college student, and I had no idea what university life was like and no one at home who had been through this to help guide me. Academically, I was pretty well prepared but in other respects, I had no idea of what to expect. This might be the case with some of our Carolina Covenant Scholars.”

Last fall, Chancellor James Moeser sent out a call to faculty to serve as mentors. Within a matter of days, more than 80 individuals responded, and 15 volunteers were selected.

“Money matters for these students, but I expect that the embrace of the community will โ€“ in the end โ€“ prove to be an even more powerful predictor of student success,” said Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid at UNC. “We must all do whatever is in our power to make sure our students succeed.”

Mentors recently attended training sessions and will meet with their small groups of 15 Carolina Covenant Scholars several times this semester. Mentors will receive modest stipends and budgets, made possible by private funds, for social and cultural activities for their group.

“Students typically perform better if they have some guidance from faculty and advisers to make sure they are on track,” Ort said. “A lot of times, it’s just observing students and spotting something that may be a little out of the normal or that could indicate problems โ€“ starting to miss classes, looking tired.”

New mentor Dr. Joe Hopfinger, assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ department of psychology, said he focused on the satisfaction of being a part of the new project.

“I’m only a small part of this, but I think the Carolina Covenant program is so worthwhile that I want to do what I can to help it succeed. I want to stress to the scholars that my door is always open to them, for whatever they want to talk about. They’re such great students. I’m really looking forward to that day when we can watch them receive their college diplomas.”

The mentoring program will expand in the fall, with an expected 25 or so mentors working with their group for the full academic year. Next year’s incoming Carolina Covenant Scholars also will have a pre-orientation program, as well as other new resources in place to help them succeed.

With the university’s enhanced financial eligibility requirements, an estimated 350 additional students will join the Carolina Covenant next fall. Then students and their families must be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $37,000 for a family of four), up from 150 percent (about $28,000 for a family of four) this year.

Donors have committed more than $3 million in private gifts to support the Carolina Covenant as part of the Carolina First Campaign. Those gifts include the Bank of America Charitable Foundation’s plans to invest $900,000 in the Carolina Covenant and $100,000 in the Center for Banking and Finance in UNC’s School of Law. Other generous donors to the Carolina Covenant include UNC Basketball Coach Roy Williams and his family, Central Carolina Bank Foundation and Pepsi Bottling Ventures LLC.