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Carolina Covenant

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Emerson Evans ’08 on deep questions and sleepless nights

By Eric Johnson  |  March 8, 2016

Emerson Evans

Covenant alum Emerson Evans ’11, a public health officer with the US Department of Health and Human Services, speaks with students during a return visit to UNC.

A year after graduating from Carolina, Emerson Evans ‘08 was waiting tables at the mall, working long hours to pay his bills during a tough recession.

Now, eight years after graduating from Carolina, Evans is a project manager at the United States Department of Health and Human Services, overseeing a portfolio of public health grants worth more than $20 million.

“These are stories you need to hear,” Evans told a group of students last month. “There’s no one-size-fits-all path. It’s about your path.”

Evans returned to that theme again and again during his February visit to campus, where he met with Carolina Covenant and Achieve Carolina Scholars. Over a Saturday night dinner of tacos and sweet tea, he described the journey from struggling first-year student to highly successful public health officer. It was years-long accomplishment that took discipline, patience, and a willingness to work.

“When I was doing my master’s thesis, I’d get home after working all day, having classes all afternoon, and then sit down to type up a fifty page paper,” Evans recalled, describing his time in graduate school. “Sometimes, I’d only get a couple hours of sleep. But now I sleep fine because I’m fully employed!”

Helping today’s students envision their own way forward — and work through those sleepless nights — is a key goal of bringing alumni like Evans back to campus. The Carolina Covenant, which provides financial aid and support services to some of the University’s lowest-income students, is now nearly twelve years old. The first Covenant class enrolled in 2004, which means the oldest alums are just entering their thirties, with lives and careers in full stride.

“We thought the time was right to start reconnecting with some of our Covenant graduates,” said Shirley Ort, Director of Scholarships and Student Aid. “It’s easy for those of us in the office to give advice to students, but it means so much more coming from someone who has been in their shoes, who remembers the struggle and can offer some guidance.”

The Office of Scholarships and Student Aid is developing a regular schedule of Carolina Covenant alumni visits, an effort to build lasting connections between current students and recent graduates. There are now nearly 2,500 Covenant alumni, and creating a network of potential mentors from different disciplines and professional backgrounds can have real value for current students.

National research suggests that alumni engagement can help motivate current students, cultivate outside advocates for the university’s access programs, and give students an important resource for career planning and general life advice.

Emerson Evans2During his visit, Evans got questions on everything from graduate school applications to global health issues. He even detailed the joys and frustrations of public-sector employment, since he has worked with municipal agencies, nonprofit groups, and the federal government. (Pros: Satisfaction of public service, decent benefits. Cons: Modest pay, bureaucratic slowness.)

But students mostly wanted to know what led Evans to public health, and how they can find a career that feels more like a calling. Evans told the story of a close relative who died of HIV, and how profoundly that shaped his view of the world. “That was my call to action,” he said, advising students to think about their own motivations.

“Dig deep. What do you feel like your purpose is? What are your professional goals and personal aspirations? Those questions are a kind of foundation for you.”

Students lingered well beyond the end of dinner, talking late into the evening before heading out into a warm weekend night. They left with plenty to think about, and a renewed confidence in the winding path ahead.