Linaka Norman and Mike Caprino

Linaka Norman and Mike Caprino

Linaka Norman knew she wanted to pursue a graduate degree, but when it came to the specifics, she was stuck. Norman was entering her third year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was double majoring in communication studies and psychology. Her interests were clear to her, but it wasn’t clear how she could apply them toward a career or another degree.

Norman was also part of the Carolina Covenant program. Since the program’s launch in 2003, it has made UNC-Chapel Hill accessible to many talented students by offering admitted undergraduates from low-income families the opportunity to earn their bachelor’s degrees at the University debt-free.

Shirley Ort, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid, led the program’s development to make sure that students from low-income families wouldn’t be deterred from applying to UNC-Chapel Hill because of the perceived costs associated with a bachelor’s degree. The Carolina Covenant was the first program of its kind to be adopted at a major public university. In its first year, the program funded 224 students. From that year onward, the University, including numerous faculty and staff, has provided tremendous support. Today, the number of Covenant Scholars is 669.

Now, under the mentorship of the Royster fellows, many of those Covenant Scholars have decided they may not want to stop once they have their bachelor’s in hand, but keep on striving for a master’s degree, or even a Ph.D.

The Graduate School support program for the Covenant Scholars got its start in 2009 when Royster fellow Jason Priem proposed that the fellows take on the mentorship of Covenant Scholars as their class service endeavor. Julia Wood, then the Caroline H. and Thomas S. Royster distinguished professor for graduate education, suggested that working with the Covenant Scholars could be a great way to connect with students—many of whom are the first in their families to work toward a degree.

In 2010, first-year Royster fellow Robert McDonald saw an opportunity to turn the pizza‑fueled “What is graduate school?” workshops that the Royster fellows organized into a full-fledged mentorship program. “We wanted to deepen that relationship and make it something more substantial,” McDonald says.

Michael Highland, associate academic coordinator for the Carolina Covenant program, had always encouraged Covenant Scholars to think ahead and put graduate school on their radar as a possibility. He has, therefore, encouraged the undergraduates to participate in the Royster fellows’ mentoring program.

That mentorship program is now in its third year and the number of pairs has increased from last year’s 14 to 24 this year. “It’s one of those projects that seems to have taken on a life of its own,” says Wood.

The challenge Covenant Scholars face is that they often feel pressured to pick advanced degrees that historically have had the most streamlined track toward employment, like dentistry, medicine or law. These fields, however, may not be the best fit for every student. Having a Royster fellow as a mentor gives undergraduates a little “intellectual elbow room,” as McDonald says, and can help an undergraduate gain a better understanding of the variety of opportunities for paths in graduate education.

The program pairs interested Royster fellows and third-year Covenant Scholars based on shared research or study interests. Fellows meet one-on-one with their mentees at least every three or four weeks. In these conversations, the Royster fellows act as sounding boards for the undergraduate students, listening to their interests and offering advice on how a graduate degree might benefit them. The fellows also put on two or three workshops on graduate education-oriented topics each semester. These workshops have included talks by graduate faculty and students, tips on how to get into graduate school or on how to write a personal statement, and presentations from the career center.

Fred Clark is the academic coordinator for the Carolina Covenant program. He says that the Covenant Scholars’ reactions to the Royster fellows’ mentorship have been overwhelmingly positive. They appreciate the one-on-one focus and attention that the fellows give them. Linaka Norman is one Covenant Scholar who feels she got a lot out of the program.

Norman went through the program last year. Her Royster fellow mentor was Mike Caprino, a Ph.D. student in the School of Education. Caprino and Norman met twice a month over the last school year. Now Norman is in her fourth year at UNC-Chapel Hill and is in the process of applying to several graduate programs.

Listen to Mike and Linaka reflect on their experience as mentor and mentee.

Mike and Linaka