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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC’s head of admissions Stephen Farmer focuses on opportunity

Stephen Farmer, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions.
Stephen Farmer, Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions.

“We had assumed that if some rigor was good, more would be better,” said Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions. “We started thinking six to seven APs was a decent course load.”

The admissions office found that though there is a correlation between a student’s high school course load and that student’s performance in his or her first year at UNC, there is a point where this levels off and other qualities are more important.

“Some things are hard to quantify: courage, intellect, bravery,” said Ashley Memory, senior assistant director of admissions.

The department also knows that neither Advanced Placement courses nor high-quality academic counseling — which might push students to take a heavier course load — are available in every school. This is a problem for an office that aims to give a fair chance to each student who applies.

Aspiring Tar Heels sometimes go to great lengths to make their applications stand out, admissions officials said.

“A student sent a poster of herself spray-mounted on foam core,” Memory said.

One applicant sent in her self-portrait attached to helium balloons, meant to rise out of the box when opened, Farmer said.

The creativity comes from the growing pressure high schoolers feel to secure a spot at a good university, admissions officials said.

Farmer said the department works to help all students, no matter their background.

“Each student that comes through here, regardless of whether they end up attending UNC, should believe that we care about them and their future,” he said. “The purpose of a great public university is to find and nurture great talent wherever we can.”

Junior Teodoro Gonzalez, an admissions ambassador and student, took a course with Farmer on the university in American life and said the director approaches admissions with an understanding philosophy.

“He places a great emphasis on making sure everyone has a chance, regardless of your income level,” Gonzalez said.

The  Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program and Carolina College Advising Corps reach out to first-generation college students, who make up nearly 20 percent of undergraduates at the University.

Farmer, who was a first-generation college student himself, admitted there is work to do, especially when it comes to enrolling low-income students.

“We’re not as good as we want to be,” Farmer said.

He also talked about how stressful college admissions can be for some.

“The admissions world is a little bit out of whack,” Farmer said. “Students feel that if they don’t go to a certain school, they will die. That’s not true.”

Ashley Arthur, Farmer’s assistant, said the applicants who stand out are those who display an interest in departments or instructors.

“What we really like is when a student sends us an e-mail to express an interest in a particular professor. It’s great to see them show initiative,” Arthur said.

Farmer added that it is rewarding to work for a school so many students want to attend.

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“The students that come our way are vulnerable,” Farmer said. “It’s a privilege to work at a place that students care so deeply about.”