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Senior Juan Castro wasn’t sure that he’d find his place at Carolina. But through the Carolina Covenant, the Latinx Center and volunteer opportunities, the Tar Heel found a sense of belonging in Chapel Hill.

Juan Castro smiling in front of the Old Well on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus
Juan Castro at the Old Well on Thursday, September 16, 2021. Castro is a Carolina Covenant Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill. (Photo by Jen Hughey/UNC-Chapel Hill)

When Juan Castro toured Carolina as a high school junior, he was struck by a feeling that was as powerful as it was unexpected: UNC-Chapel Hill felt like it could be home.

“Coming from an immigrant household and hoping to become a first-generation college student, I was like, ‘There’s no way that any college is going to feel like home,’” said Castro, a senior at Carolina. “That changed when I came to Carolina.”

Part of his intuition came from learning about the Carolina Covenant, a financial aid program that also provides significant support to help qualifying students from low-income backgrounds thrive at Carolina and graduate debt-free. Earning the Carolina Covenant solidified Castro’s sense of belonging and empowerment: He had secured his path to success at Carolina.

“Just hearing the words ‘Carolina Covenant’ told me that Carolina has made a promise to students like me,” Castro said. “Having the Carolina Covenant has empowered me to pursue all these different opportunities at UNC.”

The path he has taken is certainly a busy one. A double major in psychology and sociology with a minor in anthropology, Castro received a Carolina Research Scholar Grant and was named a Centers for Disease Control Undergraduate Public Health Scholar. He also earned a Renwick Scholar Academic Achievement Award. He served as president of Mi Pueblo, a Latinx-focused student organization; worked as an admissions ambassador; and held leadership positions with the North Carolina Study Center and Beta Epsilon Chi.

Castro is currently senior class president and a member of the Carolina Latinx Center. He volunteers as a patient navigator at the children’s and cancer hospitals at UNC and has been tapped into the Order of the Golden Fleece, Carolina’s oldest and highest honorary society

“I always joke that I make sure that I’m getting my money’s worth out of the Carolina Covenant,” Castro said. “I’m very appreciative of the Carolina Covenant because it helped me just come in and just truly enjoy Carolina without scrambling to pay for tuition or food and housing.”

Marcela Torres-Cervantes, assistant director of the Carolina Latinx Center, said that Castro was among the first students she met when she started her work at the CLC in 2020. Castro has helped her publicize and strengthen CLC programming.

“He always steps up,” Torres-Cervantes said. “When we have an event, he is one of the first to help us get the word out, and he’s the one who can get people excited. He helps us figure out what works and what we should do more of. The work that Latinx Center does cannot happen without students like Juan.”

Sophomore Gustavo Gonzalez, met Castro during a Mi Pueblo welcome event the summer before he enrolled at Carolina. The two bonded over their Latinx heritage and the fact that they are both Carolina Covenant Scholars.

With Castro serving as his mentor, Gonzalez has ascended to a leadership role within Mi Pueblo and frequently joins Castro for study sessions at Davis Library. The two share Google calendars, and Gonzalez often marvels at how busy Castro is when he tries to schedule a time for the two to meet.

“He’ll do anything for other people or for the groups he’s involved in,” Gonzalez said. “He works incredibly hard. I’ll look at his calendar and see that he is booked from 8 a.m. until nighttime. Sometimes I feel like I have to remind him that he needs to take some breaks.”

Castro’s drive to immerse himself in campus life at Carolina stems from his own interests and also an awareness that he can create opportunities for future students.

“Both as a Covenant Scholar and a minority student, my background is less represented at UNC,” Castro said. “So everything I’m involved with is a mixture of wanting to have fun and pursue things that are important to me, but also knowing that the seat I take today opens up a seat for a student who looks like me tomorrow.”

Castro plans to pursue his Ph.D. in public health to work as an educator on health care equity and an advocate for immigrant communities.

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By Drew Guiteras, University Development

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