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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC's Forgotten Minority

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Ever since she could walk, freshman Brittney Vann has known about the National Hollerin' Contest. Her hometown of Spivey's Corner, with a population of 49, draws up to 10,000 people on the third Saturday of June each year to compete in the contest.

Now, as a student at UNC, she attends classes with a student body more than twice the size of her hometown population on that hollerin' day in June.

Ever since he could walk, junior Benjamin Listerman has known how to drive a tractor. In high school, his typical after-school activities were baling hay and feeding the cows at his family's farm outside Richfield (population 605), near Salisbury.

Now, as a UNC student, he sometimes finds himself in the middle of class staring out the window at groundskeepers trimming the bushes or painting a wall. And he's jealous.

"Ever since I came (to Chapel Hill), I haven't felt like I fit in," Listerman said. "It's a shock. It's a big adjustment. It's a different lifestyle."

Listerman and Vann belong to a minority group not listed in ethnic profiles of the University. Members of their group don't march through the Pit together in demonstrations. But the students from rural North Carolina contribute to diversity at the University.

UNC's mission is to serve all people in the state, and it strives to provide the state with future leaders. To do this, it must educate students from two North Carolinas -- the North Carolina that produced the largest privately held software company in the world and the North Carolina that produces more tobacco, turkeys and sweet potatoes than any other state.

Students at UNC come overwhelmingly from the Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro metropolitan areas. In the 1999 freshman class, 35 percent of N.C. residents came from four counties: Forsyth, Guilford, Wake and Mecklenburg. These four counties represent about 25 percent of the state's population. Even taking population into account, North Carolina's rural students are underrepresented at UNC.

This disparity could stem from many factors, ranging from recruiting efforts to local traditions to available academic opportunities.

Recruiting students from rural towns can present a challenge to the Admissions Office because many prospective students would be the first in their families to attend college, said Barbara Polk, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions.

"(College) hasn't been part of their family tradition," Polk said.

"There are students who don't see an institution like Chapel Hill as a possibility, as a comfortable place to come. We have to help them work through that."

The roots are deep -- many families from small towns in North Carolina have lived in the same place for generations. Senior Jamie DeMent's great-great-great-grandfather lived in her native Franklin County. Of her maternal grandmother's nine children, six -- including DeMent's mother -- stayed in the county, as did all of their children and grandchildren.

Starting Behind?

Often, students from rural communities come from school districts that don't have the tax base to fund as wide a range of academic programs as urban schools do.

"Students from larger areas get to experience more extensive curriculum then we're able to offer," said Danny Ralph, guidance counselor at Midway High School in Spivey's Corner, a school that draws students from rural regions of Sampson County.

Vann was valedictorian of her graduating class of about 100 seniors at Midway last year. She had confidence in her academic background until she heard students at C-TOPS talking about how many credits they had racked up through Advanced Placement courses.

Midway offers only four AP subjects -- English language, English literature, calculus and physics. In contrast, Raleigh's Broughton High School offers 14 AP courses; Charlotte's Myers Park High School offers 20.

"I came in with nothing," Vann said. "It's a shock from being at the top. I have to start from the bottom. It's discouraging. Others have more under their belt."

Lauren Joyce, a junior from Sanford (population 14,475), was a standout at Lee County Senior High School as a cheerleader, Keywanettes president and National Honor Society member who graduated in the top 10 percent of her class of almost 400 seniors.

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"All of a sudden, I wasn't a top student," Joyce said of coming to UNC. "Everyone here was just like me or smarter. Everyone was a shining star."

While the first taste of college classes is likely to intimidate any freshman, rural freshmen tend to feel that they are at a disadvantage compared to their classmates.

In order to compensate for the academic gap, UNC offers remedial classes, such as English 10 and Math 10, that would be considered high school subjects in many urban schools.

But there's no stigma attached to taking them at UNC, said Harry Watson, director of the Center for the American South. The Writing Center provides instruction in how to write a paper, and the Learning Center offers tutoring and academic support.

But Joseph Pearce, a high school teacher, said many rural students don't need any special attention.

"I didn't feel inadequate," said Pearce, a 1967 UNC graduate who teaches at his alma mater, Louisburg High School.

When Pearce's students come to him expressing hesitation about enrolling in UNC, he tells them to put their fears aside.

"Good students are able to hold their own well among those from what are perceived as more sophisticated backgrounds," Pearce said. "If you take what you're doing seriously and work hard, you can hold your own among some that may have advantages over you."

At rural high schools, foreign language teachers are less likely to be native speakers, Watson said. There are fewer AP courses and fewer special academic programs such as International Baccalaureate through which high school students can earn college credit.

But while rural schools might lack such programs, they offer practical courses not usually found in the urban schools. Lee County Senior High School offers classes in agriculture production management and horticulture.

UNC admissions officers take into consideration the courses offered at different high schools by admitting students who did their best with what their schools offered, Polk said.

The fact that the Admissions Office takes in-state residence into account is a form of affirmative action less often contested than the highly controversial race-based affirmative action, Watson said.

"It is mostly of benefit to white students," Watson said. "It creates no controversy, while race-based affirmative action provokes private grumbles in places like the Chapel Hill High PTA.

"But once (rural students) get here, we're not as proactive."

The University can point many minority students in the direction of campus support organizations: Black students can visit the Sonja H. Stone Black Cultural Center or join the Black Student Movement; Hispanic students can join the Carolina Hispanic Association.

There are more than 40 campus cultural organizations.

There is not an organized support system for rural students -- and many of them say it is not necessary. But when students from this group arrive at UNC, they face challenges that are different from other freshman jitters.

Extra Hurdles

The sheer size of UNC can be daunting for students from small towns.

"Where I grew up, I knew everyone's name, all the neighbors," Listerman said. "Don't get me wrong, I'd been to big cities. But it's living that every day."

Whether this bothers students from small towns depends on each individual.

"The fact that I didn't know everyone didn't bother me," Pearce said.

"They didn't know me either."

Not only are the people at UNC numerous, but they dress differently, act differently and talk differently than the folks from many students' hometowns. Vann said she was known at C-TOPS as "the girl with the Southern accent."

It's often a conversation starter -- students with Southern accents often have other students ask, "Where are you from?" Some students said they have tried to tone down their speech habits since coming to UNC.

"As soon as I open my mouth, there's a stamp that says, 'Oh, Lord, she's from rural North Carolina,'" said DeMent, one of Pearce's former students from Louisburg. "I had to make myself a little less Southern. I don't say 'reckon' anymore. I don't draw my syllables out as much."

For all the adjusting that students from small N.C. towns do, they realize that the opportunity they're getting is worth the hassles.

Much of Joyce's graduating class from Lee County High School went across the street from the high school to Central Carolina Community College.

Joyce said her friends from high school who didn't go away to college haven't had the eye-opening experiences she has had -- though she wasn't anticipating what she found in her freshman residence hall.

"I was expecting a suite of eight girls who would be my best friends, who would be just like me," she said.

Instead, Joyce's suitemates were racially and ideologically different and from diverse parts of the state and country. They didn't become her best friends, but she learned from them, she said.

She notices how much her perspective has widened when she visits home.

Last semester, while at the fairgrounds in Sanford, she realized how far detached from her hometown she'd become since attending UNC.

"I saw people who had never left Sanford," Joyce said. "They'd been there all their lives. They've never seen anything else."

While Joyce and other rural students say they feel that life in their hometowns offers a limited view of the world compared to college, they appreciate the way they were brought up. The safety, the community and the sense of belonging she found at home were invaluable, Joyce said.

"I felt taken care of and cared about," she said.

The University would like rural high school students to feel a similar sense of comfort in coming to Chapel Hill. That's what UNC Renaissance strives to encourage them to do.

Reaching Out

Renaissance, a student organization funded partially by the Office of Minority Affairs, brings 40 high school sophomores from parts of the state underrepresented in the undergraduate population to the University.

The high schoolers participate in a five-day program designed to encourage them to pursue a higher education. Many participants are from rural parts of the state, and for some, it's the first time they visit a college campus.

Under the guidance of UNC student counselors, the high school students tour campus, eat at Lenoir Dining Hall, attend seminars given by University faculty and participate in leadership and team-building activities.

The program targets high school sophomores because they still have time to change their academic goals before it's too late, said senior Meg Smothers, director of the Renaissance program.

"The University has an obligation to an entire state," Smothers said.

"Rural students are an underserved population. We're trying to support the University's mission to take care of everybody in the state. If we can infuse (participants) with goals, that accomplishes the mission."

Freshman Ester Knight, a former Renaissance participant from Gates County, calls the program "the best experience in my life." She said participating in Renaissance influenced her decision to take AP classes her junior and senior years so she could get into UNC.

Rural residents tend to be more skeptical of the University, often seeing it as a cold, unfriendly place, Polk said.

The Admissions Office hopes to combat that with phone-a-thons through which students, faculty and staff call admitted students. The office also holds informational receptions around the state and country, which are more meaningful in rural areas, Polk said, because the people tend to feel less like they already understand UNC.

Whether they understand UNC or not, many people from rural North Carolina support the Tar Heels just as fiercely as residents of Charlotte or Raleigh. The state seems to have a love-hate relationship with its flagship university. There are those who grumble that it's an elitist institution and those who think highly of the University.

"It's obviously the first choice for college-bound students," said Margaret Basinger, guidance counselor at East Rowan Senior High School and a UNC alumna. "A Carolina degree is impressive in this state."

Last year, 17 graduating seniors from East Rowan's class of 240 were admitted to UNC. All 17 enrolled in the University.

Historically, there was no discrepancy between urban and rural students because nearly all students were rural -- indeed, most of the state was once rural. But the face of North Carolina changed as the once-agrarian state saw the rise of metropolitan areas.

And as these cities continue to grow and change, UNC will face the challenge of maintaining a university that continues to serve students from different backgrounds, both urban and rural.

While the urban areas of the state are flourishing, many students say they will always be at home in rural North Carolina.

Listerman's family instilled a love of the land in him, and he said he hopes his kids can grow up like he did -- with an understanding of a hard day's work in a peaceful setting.

"There's no solitude here," Listerman said of Chapel Hill. "I can't go out to my pond and watch the sun set and fish. I can't ride a tractor for four hours straight with the mind-numbing hum of the muffler staring me in the face for so long. It's not that I can't change. But these things are part of me."

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