Three Students Discuss the Impact of NC Promise

As NC Countdown to College begins next week, students across the state are busy contemplating their options. Staff with the College Foundation of North Carolina are gearing up to help students complete residency forms, FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms, and college applications during free College Application Week, which runs from October 21-25.

For many prospective college students, an NC Promise institution will be a top choice, and with good reason: affordable excellence. The three NC Promise institutions provide an open doorway to exciting academic and career opportunities in drone technology, business management, health sciences, education, criminal justice, outdoor adventure, forensic science … the possibilities are vast. No matter their intellectual bent, curious students will find a perfect curricular match somewhere across these three institutions.

Historically, the UNC System has always stood out, offering among the most affordable tuition rates anywhere in the nation. The NC Promise Tuition Plan is central to the University’s efforts to drive costs down even further. At Elizabeth City State University, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Western Carolina University, North Carolina residents pay only $500 a semester for tuition; out-of-state students pay only $2,500.

And, with tuition set at a fraction of what students would pay to attend other peer institutions, it’s no surprise that enrollment continues to climb at these universities.

Three NC Promise students, at different stages of their careers and from different institutions, shared their thoughts about the importance of college education. Their stories make it clear: a college education changes lives, and the NC Promise Tuition Plan puts that transformative experience within reach for more North Carolinians.

From the Beginning: Thoughts from the First-Year Perspective

Kyra Rhyne in her Scientific Methods and Writing biology lab.

Kyra Rhyne in her Scientific Methods and Writing biology lab.

Kyra Rhyne is in her first semester at Western Carolina University. She arrived in Cullowhee by way of Gaston Early College High School, where she earned both her Associate of Arts and Associate of Science degrees. Transferring into the UNC System with two associate degrees in hand has allowed Ms. Rhyne to enter the university with junior status. She is majoring in integrated health sciences, with an eye on eventually pursuing medical school.

Why choose WCU?

Part of it was affordability, for sure. NC Promise made a difference. But I was also attracted to Western’s overall environment. It’s a tight-knit community—I didn’t want to go to a school where I was seen as a number. I wanted a school where I could feel like I’m being seen for who I am. Affordability and environment … that’s what did it.

From Gaston County to Cullowhee. Do you feel like you’re far from home?

Cullowhee is about two and a half hours from home. That’s a good distance. I don’t feel like I need to be home all the time, but I can go there when I need to.

Why is affordability so important?

My mom was from the Philippines, and she met my dad through a pen-pal exchange. She never went to a community college or anything like that. My dad never got an official degree. He’s pretty much worked in a textile mill all my life. My mom never worked, and getting her to America took a lot out of my dad. Financially we were never really stable.

“Growing up, I never even expected to go to college. But higher education was something my parents pushed for, because they wanted a better life for me.”

Growing up, I never even expected to go to college. But higher education was something my parents pushed for, because they wanted a better life for me.

So your family is really excited for you?

Because my mom grew up in another country, she understood all the opportunities we have here in the U.S. and in North Carolina. She wanted me to take advantage of that.

My mom has passed away, and that also has a lot to do with my story and my drive.

I also have two younger siblings. They look up to me as a role model. Being the only girl in the house and being the oldest, it’s kinda awesome … they look up to me like, “You’re so great!”

So, I’m teaching them what I’m learning, especially about this whole process of succeeding in school and getting into college.

What’s been the biggest challenge about getting used to college life?

After my mom passed, I feel like I helped keep the family together. I worked to make sure everyone stayed okay. My brothers are polar opposites in terms how they act, and my dad was a mess.  So leaving them behind was hard … knowing I’m not there.  I check in with them all the time, and they’re doing really well.

And I’m doing well here. I’ve found a big community of support here at Western, which means I can check in to make sure my family is doing well back home.

What do you like most about being at Western Carolina?

The scenery is absolutely beautiful, but it’s the people that make me love it. They’re so warm and welcoming. I feel like there are people here for me and to support me in this whole journey.

In your first semester at school, have you discovered a favorite class yet?

(chuckles) Yes. Systems and Trends in Healthcare.

I want to become a doctor, and this class in particular has really opened my eyes to all sorts of issues in healthcare, like social disparity—how upbringing will impact a person’s health for an entire life.

It’s so interesting and mind blowing because I’ve never thought about it before. When I’m sick, I go to the doctor. I have Medicaid. It takes care of me. But other people don’t have that, and it makes my passion for wanting to help people so much stronger.

Did your experience with your mom influence your desire to go into healthcare?

Yes. With my mom’s experience, I’ve seen it all. Everything. From diagnosis to treatment.

I want to help others going through what I’ve gone through. I was able to put my family’s needs ahead of my own, but I know there are a lot of people who can’t do that. I want to be there for those people.

At the moment, I really want to work with kids. Being there for my brothers has motivated me. I went through a lot in my youth, and I want to give back. Plus, kids are SOOO much fun!

What advice would you give to graduating high school seniors as they begin weighing their college choices?

Think about all your options. There was a big push for me to go to one of the major research institutions. Those schools are obviously awesome. But I also think it’s important to pick the place that has the right atmosphere and people that match.

Western Carolina is smaller than those other universities, but I can take advantage of the same learning opportunities here. In fact, here, I have access to different opportunities. Here in the mountains, if you’re in the sciences, you can walk right outside and have immediate access to a wide range of natural environments to study. If you’re studying at an urban university, you’ve got to do some driving if you want to get to these spaces!

Don’t go to a college just because it’s where all your friends are going. No matter where you study, you get out what you put in. It’s not just about classes, either. Education is about extracurricular activities that you pursue.

As a Student Leader Sees It: NC Promise from the Senior Vantage Point

Thomas Crowe-Allbritton is “from everywhere,” but now he feels right at home at UNC Pembroke.

Thomas Crowe-Allbritton is “from everywhere,” but now he feels right at home at UNC Pembroke.

Thomas Crowe-Allbritton is a senior studying in UNC Pembroke’s School of Education. He serves as the president of the Student Government Association. Mr. Allbritton also served as chair of the SGA University and Community Relations Committee.

Where did you grow up, Thomas?

Oh, I’m from everywhere.

I went to high school in Oxford NC … J.F. Webb high school. But I was born in Dothan Alabama, and I moved all around the south when I was growing up.

You’re in your senior year. What are your professional ambitions?

I want to teach.

My eventual goal is to teach at the collegiate level.

But when I graduate from UNCP, I want to teach social studies at the high school level. I’m passionate about civic engagement and social justice, and when I think back on the most important teacher in my K-12 career, I think about my social studies teacher. I think so many of us look back to our arts teachers, and our social studies teachers, and our literature teachers, because those are the classes where students engage in passionate conversations.

Sometimes these conversations can be difficult, but that’s what makes them so stimulating and so memorable.

Guiding that kind of dialogue is what I want to do as a teacher.

Why high school?

Because that’s really when you can begin to have adult conversations with these kids.

Some people might have the mindset that high school students are still children because they’re still in school, but, at 16 and 17, these students are on the cusp of adulthood. They’re adults and they should be treated as such.

My hope is to pass on a passion for getting involved, helping others, going out to vote … I want to get them to value the importance of being engaged citizens.

“Yes … I know I’m on the right track. Teaching is exactly what I want to do.”

Can you think of a moment when you’ve thought, “Yes … I know I’m on the right track. Teaching is exactly what I want to do.”

As part of my studies, I observed classes at Gray’s Creek High School. On my first day in the classroom, the teacher guided a conversation about sensitive topics in American politics.

I was really amazed to see that students on both sides of the debate had valid things to say, and I thought, ‘This is what needs to happen. This is the dialogue that needs to be taking place in our classrooms.’

These are the conversations I want to hear.

What are your primary research interests in your field?

My goal is to teach students concepts more than content. I want them to be able to do more than remember names and dates. I want them to be able to look at historical content and discover what it actually means.

In history classes, the issue is getting students to recognize the difference between “the past” and “history.”  The past is what happened. History is how those events are interpreted. I want students to think historically. To understand historiography. To understand how history was created so they can learn how to think about our past for themselves.

Can you elaborate? How does one teach from a historiographical perspective rather than just asking students to recite a sequence of facts?

I’m really interested in the history of history … how history as a subject has been taught over the years. How interpretations of facts evolve.

The history of Christopher Columbus offers an easy example. At one time, the content of a unit on Columbus could be boiled down into that little jingle students once learned to help them remember the facts. You know, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”

Nowadays we look at that historical moment completely differently. Any discussion of Columbus opens up debate and dialogue around the issue of colonialization. In the future, we’ll study Columbus with different questions in mind.

The historiographer asks, “Why did that shift happen?”

I started learning about historiography when I was studying the Civil Rights movement. At one time, historians took a very top-down approach, focusing all their scholarly attention on the prominent national leaders. Now, historians look more broadly at the smaller organizations that had an impact, like SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and smaller protests and voter registration efforts in Georgia and Alabama that really made the Civil Rights movement what it was.

When you teach historiography, the focus is on how the story is told. That’s what I want to get students to learn: this was how the story was told then, this is how it’s told now. Why did that change take place?

Were you always interested in history?

Initially I thought I was going to major in music education. Coming into college, I thought music was a passion. But during my freshman year, I realized it was more of a hobby. I realized that social studies was my passion.

One factor was realizing what I’m really good at … and I’m really good at talking, to be honest (laughs). Another word for it would be arguing! So this realization pushed me forward, and friends steered me toward courses they thought I’d like. It was all forward momentum from there!

Were you anxious about having to pay for a 5th year of college?

Well, yes and no.

I knew that I could load up my semesters with extra hours if I needed to, but I am glad I didn’t have to do that, because my grades wouldn’t be where they are now. And now, with UNC Pembroke being an NC Promise institution, I came into this 5th year without the concern of graduating with a looming shadow of debt that would follow me for years to come.

“… I came to college horrified that I would accumulate mountains of debt. But the affordable tuition here has done a lot to alleviate those anxieties.”

Coming from a less fortunate family, I came to college horrified that I would accumulate mountains of debt. But the affordable tuition here has done a lot to alleviate those anxieties.

What was your family background?

I was raised by a single mother. My mother was single when she had me and then got married pretty young … that’s when she had my younger sister.

We moved around a lot, with my mother and stepfather looking for different jobs. They couldn’t keep consistent jobs. Then my mom got divorced pretty early on, then got laid off. For a while we were on unemployment, moving all around the southeast.

I also had medical issues, which took a financial toll.

I didn’t have the best grades in high school, because I had to work around 30-35 hours a week. I was going to be depending on scholarships, and I wasn’t sure I had the grades to get any. But I was lucky enough to get some scholarships and support.

You’ve clearly benefitted from NC Promise. As president of the Student Government Association at UNC Pembroke, do you see the program having a widespread impact on your peers?

Absolutely. There are a lot of people here who are able to pay out of pocket because the tuition is so affordable compared to most places. It’s really amazing to be able to graduate with such a quality education without much debt. That’s something that a lot of students my age want to do.

In fact, a lot of people don’t even consider going to college, because they don’t want to go into massive debt. It sure feels like NC Promise is going to push more and more in the right direction.

This will have an impact on the local community. As you know, UNC Pembroke is in Robeson County, which is one of the poorest counties in North Carolina. NC Promise will allow more of the people from here to be able to go to college.

To have more people from this community to go to college in their home area, so they can graduate and contribute to the workforce here, in their hometown … that’s incredible.

Aside from tuition, what’s your favorite part of Pembroke?

Do you mean the college or the town?

Give me both.

Well, it is both.  Pembroke is more than just a college. It’s more than just a town. It’s both.

When you drive into town, there’s a sign that says “Pembroke: Town, Tribe, University”. Pembroke is home to the Lumbee Tribe, and that culture goes right into the town and right into the school.  Nowhere else on earth will you find a town that is so unified in these three areas.

Every university event is infused with Native American traditions, and that’s something you won’t get anywhere else. It’s pretty cool.

Looking Back: An Alum Reflects on NC Promise

Robert Boone is a Presidential Scholar at the UNC System Office in Chapel Hill, but no matter where he goes, he’ll always be a Viking at heart.

Robert Boone is a Presidential Scholar at the UNC System Office in Chapel Hill, but no matter where he goes, he’ll always be a Viking at heart.

Robert Boone is a member of Elizabeth City State University’s 2019 graduating class. While studying at ECSU, Mr. Boone was an active member of the Student Government Association, where he served as a senator and vice president of administration. Boone also served on various campus committees, including the University Services Review Committee, Dining Service Advisory Committee, Tuition and Fees Committee, and the Campus Beautification Committee.

What did you study?

I studied business administration with a concentration in economics and finance. I started out in computer science, but I switched to business in my sophomore year. Computer science was pretty cool, but I realized at an early stage that it wasn’t the field for me.

What drew you to business?

Business was a good access point that I felt could lead to many other places and opportunities. I see my business education as a foundation for what’s next. I aspire to be an administrator in higher education one day, so right now I’m applying to Master’s of Public Administration programs and will one day have my doctorate!

You are here at the UNC System Office as a Presidential Scholar. Clearly you are interested in higher education. Why? What draws you to this arena?

“I want to play a key role in education and in making lives better for students.”

Through my student leadership roles at ECSU, I developed an interest in education and public service. I realized that I had bigger ambitions to go into higher education and to work on a campus and to help students. I want to play a key role in education and in making lives better for students. Yep … that’s why I’m here!

What’s the most interesting part of the work you’re doing here?

Oh wow, there’s a lot. Right now I’m working in Academic Affairs and Legal and Risk. They’re keeping me pretty busy. I currently research and review policies, help produce the newsletter distributed to the chief academic officers across the System, and play key roles supporting other programs and initiatives. What’s really interesting to me is being able to see how the System Office supports each individual institution. This is helping me to gain new skillsets and valuable experience in higher ed.

Where are you from?

I’m from Lewiston-Woodville in Bertie County, North Carolina.

Why did you choose ECSU?

That’s a great story. I was actually committed to going to another university, but my high school guidance counselor convinced me to attend an open house at ECSU. I fell in love immediately, and this was even before the UNC System invested so much to revitalize the campus. The environment was just amazing. I felt like I was at home. The people, the students, everyone was so welcoming and helpful and I thought, “Wow … this might be just what I need.”

Even without NC Promise, which wasn’t in place yet, the tuition and fees were less expensive than the institution I had originally planned to attend. The affordability certainly was a key factor in my decision, I have to admit.

I told my family and friends about what I was thinking, and initially I didn’t get a lot of support. But I went with my gut.

It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Now, here I am, working as a Presidential Scholar at the UNC System Office.

Just last week, this lifelong Viking even went to Washington, DC, with UNC Board of Governor member Darrell Allison, ECSU Chancellor Karrie Dixon, and System Office staff. As part of a larger presentation on the importance of the UNC System’s historically minority-serving institutions, I spoke to an audience of Congressional staffers about my experiences at ECSU.

What can you get at ECSU that you can’t get anywhere else? What makes the university special—a place that high school seniors should consider when they’re applying for colleges?

ECSU is a small institution where you can get a fantastic education for an affordable price. There’s a unique family-like environment, so it’s like a home away from home. I really love how everybody at ECSU gets to share their talents and show off their hidden skills. If you’re looking for a smaller institution where you’ll be able to build those great relationships with professors and staff and really feel like you’re integral to a community, then ECSU is the place for you.

In fact, that would be my advice to incoming freshman: get involved. You have a chance to make a difference and to be a part of change. So get involved. You will get to know your campus that way, and you will also get to know people and build relationships that will last a lifetime.

Because you graduated in 2019, you were able to take advantage of NC Promise tuition rates for one year. Did it have an impact?

ECSU already gave me a lot of bang for my buck, but, with NC Promise being instituted my senior year, that saved me around two grand … just in one year. I think that’s pretty amazing. I was able to save money to do other things, like prepare to move to Chapel Hill for this position at the System Office.

Students who are just starting out now will save roughly $8,000 over the course of a four-year career at the university. It’s hard to beat that.

Given that I was so involved as a student leader when NC Promise took effect, I was able to see the enrollment increase and the new energy that it brought to campus. We had more students on campus, which means we had more students out at events. It created a different energy.

We have this regular thing … when I first started school it was called a Student Body Meeting, but now it’s called the Student Body Pregame. That sounds like an SGA meeting, but actually it’s like a big talent show where people show off their creative gifts. Everybody comes out. The band plays, cheerleaders cheer, people sing and rap, and fraternities and sororities step and stroll.

It’s just a bigtime opportunity for the Viking family to come together and have a good time. And now that family is getting even bigger and more excited.

Opportunity Leads to Opportunity

More than 21,000 students attend NC Promise institutions. If these three individuals are any indication, these three universities are generating a whole host of talent, skills, wit, and motivation to contribute to a state that gives so much.

Seen in this light, NC Promise isn’t just creating opportunities for students. It’s creating opportunities for North Carolina.