UNC undergraduate alumnus Nehemiah Stewart is working to level the playing field for minority students at historically Black colleges and universities and primarily white institutions in North Carolina.
Level the Playing Field was founded in 2020 by Stewart. The start-up focuses on providing students of color with networking and professional skills, as well as connecting them with corporations and internships.
“What Level the Playing Field is, in essence, is a three-phase program of development that seeks to recruit, train and place minority students into careers of influence with major corporations, hospitals and industries all across the nation,” Stewart, who is currently a student in the UNC School of Medicine, said.
He was inspired to found the start-up after the murder of George Floyd and others in early 2020, he said. He and other members of the Level the Playing Field team — which include faculty and graduate students from UNC and other universities in the state — brainstormed ways they could bridge gaps in access to funding, professional development and social capital for students of color.
“How do you prepare a kid for the industry? Well, you get them to meet the industrial staff,” Stewart said.
Since its launch, the program has accepted two cohorts of students, with a focus on STEM studies. Throughout the program, students attend workshops and classes taught by professionals from the start-up's industry partners, which include Merck Pharmaceutical and Johnson & Johnson, Stewart said. Classes range on topics such as resume building, imposter syndrome, time management and interviewing.
The cohort students even teach workshops about their studies to local Durham high school students, Stewart said.
Janiyah Sutton, a UNC senior majoring in human development and family science, said building connections was her favorite part as a student in the program’s first cohort.
Through the program, Sutton was connected to a mentor and able to obtain a research assistant position at Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Coming from a town in rural North Carolina, she felt "directionless and doubtful" upon arriving at the University. Level the Playing Field gave her the confidence to understand her career goals and apply for larger programs.
“Level the Playing Field really pushes you to try new things, to get out of your comfort zone and to be comfortable with being uncomfortable because if you keep pushing — trust the process — the end results will be amazing,” Sutton said.
The program also works to foster friendships and networks between students, Jim Appiah, a UNC junior studying chemistry, said. He recently interned with Merck Pharmaceutical and is a current research assistant with the Meek Lab at UNC.
“I think it takes the community to a different level, to people you can rely on, people you can call family," he said. "A community that creates some sense of home for everyone that joins."
Besides professional development, Appiah said some of his favorite parts of the program have been talking with fellow students in his cohort during Level the Playing Field classes and workshops.
Building strong networks of current and past cohort students across the nation is one of the organization's main goals for the future, Stewart said. The program plans to expand to Atlanta, Ga. next year, including schools such as Morehouse College, Spelman College and Emory University.
“We’re hoping that the arms and branches of each of these students form their own kind of tree that really just brings in more people,” he said.
No matter how much the program expands, Stewart said that its roots will always lie in Chapel Hill. The program was informed by Stewart’s understanding of the pressures that come with being a student at UNC and the pressure to succeed in chosen career paths.
“If it wasn’t for the kindness and forthcomingness of the people of Chapel Hill, the connections I have built in my time, we wouldn’t be here today at all,” he said.
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