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A crowd of graduates at UNC's 2016 Spring commencement ceremony. A girl stands in the center, her back turned; her graduation cap reads: Cheers 2016

A gift from Sunny and Lee Burrows will help more first-generation students succeed on their path to graduation. The Lookout Scholars Program will give students access to small academic communities, faculty and peer mentors, and other resources. (photo by Kristen Chavez)

Lookout Scholars Program provides new resources to first-generation students

At Carolina, approximately 20 percent of undergraduates are first-generation college students. Those students are twice as likely as other students to leave college before the start of their second year.

Sunny and Lee Burrows hope to change that.

The couple recently established the Lookout Scholars First-Generation Students Fund to create a learning community that will provide support for such students over the next five years.

The idea for the Lookout Scholars Program came several years ago when Sunny Burrows read about a similar program at the University of Texas at Austin that offered first-generation students access to small academic communities, faculty and peer mentors, and other resources.

Inspired by the program’s success, Burrows, a 1984 graduate of Carolina, looked to her alma mater to see if something similar existed. It didn’t.

As long-time donors to the College and as supporters of all levels of education through their family foundation, the Lookout Foundation, the couple thought a program to help first-generation students was a natural fit.

Burrows said her daughters, who are in college, call her for advice “because I’ve been there, and there’s a natural counsel that I can give them. Some of these kids don’t have that. If we can help give these students a solid foundation and break down obstacles, I think we can graduate a lot more leaders.”

Their gift also funds a full-time director and a graduate assistant to oversee the program, which will enroll its first 40 students this fall. Scholars will be selected from the pool of first-generation students with demonstrated financial need.

The Lookout Scholars will take three classes as a cohort. They will be divided into two groups of 20 for an introductory English course and a course titled “Navigating the Research University.” All 40 students will take a large introductory biology course with other students.

“Many of the students come from rural high schools with smaller class sizes, and these students tend to struggle with the transition to a large lecture hall,” said Cynthia Demetriou, associate dean for retention. Scheduling the students in the same section will give them a community within the larger class, she added.

In addition to block scheduling, Lookout Scholars will have access to faculty and peer mentors and activities designed to help them succeed.

Many incoming students already identify as Tar Heels — whether as sports fans or through family ties, said Demetriou. But first-generation students can find it difficult to feel a sense of belonging. The Lookout Scholars Program will foster that feeling.

“Learning communities like these can help students feel empowered, giving them the self-confidence they need to be leaders on campus and to achieve the goals they set for themselves,” said Carmen Gonzalez, director of the program.

DeSean Wilson, a first-generation college student and African, African American and diaspora studies major, says that while every student faces challenges, first-generation students often face additional hurdles.

“On a personal level, I have had to face ‘survivor’s guilt,’” Wilson said. “This refers to the anxiety that accompanies students who ‘made it.’ It is contrasted with the knowledge that others in my family and community did not have the same opportunities to go on to college.”

A goal of the program is increasing graduation rates among first-generation students, but Burrows ultimately wants more for the students than just obtaining a diploma.

“The program will be a success if we can help these young people graduate with self-esteem and optimism and the ability to change their community and their world,” she said. “I hope we can change their perspective to one of success, helping them feel excited about their futures.”

By Joanna Cardwell (M.A. ’06)

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