The inaugural cohort of Southern Futures Undergraduate Fellows is paving the way for generations of Tar Heels interested in deeply engaging with the South through student-led research and community-driven activism.
Like the South itself, the 20 students who make up the first cohort of Southern Futures Undergraduate Fellows represent identities that span traditions, regions and cultures.
The fellows come from 17 counties across North Carolina. Their intended majors range from art history to exercise and sport science, public policy to biology and beyond. But through their varied backgrounds and interests, there is a common thread: a commitment to deeply engaging with the Southern communities they call home.
This commitment is shared by UNC’s Southern Futures initiative itself, which is home to the fellowship. Created in 2018, the initiative is a cross-campus collaboration that works toward equity, justice and possibility in the American South. And, like the initiative, the fellowship is a collaborative net-work of students and mentors, scholars and community leaders.
“We are engaging in a kind of two-way dialogue,” said Elizabeth Engelhardt, senior associate dean for fine arts and humanities in the College and co-director of Southern Futures. Even in the early planning of the fellowship, she imagined asking the students questions like, What’s important to you? What are you trying to create? and How can we help?
“Undergraduate students are walking onto our campus with a voice, with ideas, with a set of commitments to their communities,” Engelhardt said. “During the time that they’re here, our job is to help them focus their voice and figure out what they need to become that person in the world, to become that future leader in the South.”
Health and Wellness in Native Communities
“Growing up, I had little exposure to my culture and ethnicity,” said Peyton Brooks, a first-year fellow from Lumberton.
Brooks is a Lumbee citizen and a member of the largest Native American community in North Carolina. She grew up in a “Tar Heel household” — her mom earned her bachelor’s degree from UNC, and her dad attended graduate school at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy. Because of her family ties and the University’s Native community, Brooks said Carolina felt like home.
“There was something about visiting for my official tour of campus,” she remembered. “I was like, ‘This is where I want to be. This is where I see myself growing for the next four years.’”
Brooks is one of over 6,500 students — about 11 percent of all UNC applicants for fall 2022 admission — who expressed interest in the new undergraduate fellowship. In partnership with the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Southern Futures leaders read nearly 400 applications for the inaugural 20 fellowships.
“Reading the stories of these students — who are absolutely the future — gave me so much hope and optimism and excitement,” said Corban Davis, director of operations for Southern Futures.
As fellows, students receive support from Southern Futures throughout their undergraduate careers. They remain together from their first weeks at Carolina until they walk across the stage at Commencement and are awarded $5,000 each to design and conduct research, create an artistic project or partner with a community over a summer of their choosing.
For her project, Brooks is hoping to combine her love for her Native community with her passion for increasing access to preventive health care.
“I’m very passionate about athletics, nutrition and healthy lifestyles,” said Brooks, an exercise and sport science major who played three varsity sports at Lumberton Senior High School. She’s considering a service-oriented project, like holding a sports camp for kids in Robeson County, where she grew up.
Brooks is hoping that working with kids will help create an environment of healthy living that reaches far beyond her initial project. “I know I want to focus on kids because if we start with young people, they’ll be able to share these beneficial life skills with future generations of Native people and anyone else in our local community.”
The fellowship’s emphasis on connecting students’ academic passions with their home communities is not something she takes for granted.
“I think it’s very special that I get to represent my people in my tribe. Hopefully, this project will be the way that I can give back to my part of the South.”
Brooks said she is proud to be part of the first undergraduate fellows cohort.
“We’re starting this legacy of students who are motivated and excited about making change in the South — and in our world in general. I think that’s really, really special.”
Giving Voices to Untold Stories
Hallie Brew, a first-year student from Apex, shared her view of the South and her place in it in her application essay.
“I deconstructed the song ‘Strange Fruit,’ sung by Billie Holiday,” said Brew. The song was first sung by the jazz singer in 1939 as a protest to the lynching of Black Americans in the South.
Brew went line-by-line through the lyrics, weaving in insights about her identity as a biracial woman and her passion for activism that was ignited by one of her Middle Creek High School teachers.
Through classes in African American literature and civic engagement, Brew first learned of the attempted lynching of Lynn Council, a Black man, in Apex in 1952. Brew and her class spoke with Council, who shared his experiences. Brew said that conversation was integral to her desire to be a Southern Futures Fellow.
For her research project, she is hoping to create opportunities to talk with more community members who have witnessed lynchings in North Carolina so that she can help contextualize and share this underreported history.
To do that, she knows listening and learning will be the first steps. “That’s something that Southern Futures has really emphasized: just listening,” she said. “I think that’s such an important thing in our world right now.”
Brew is currently a political science major and plans to pursue a career in law.
“The reason why I want to go into law, the reason I’m so interested in social justice topics and race relationships, is because of how I grew up: being one of the only people of color in my classes and wanting to learn more about the history that no one ever taught me,” she said.
Brew is enjoying the conversations she has with other fellows. She is as grateful for the in-depth discussions about their research topics as she is for discussions about life as a college student. “Everyone has so much passion for what they want to learn and do at UNC,” she said, adding that the cohort “gives an intimate family feel” to her student experience.
Fellows are also paired with graduate and professional mentors who support their work.
Tony Royle, a Ph.D. student in American studies, is the coordinator of student programming for Southern Futures. He is also the graduate research consultant for the fellows’ required course, “Research with the American South,” taught by Anna Krome-Lukens, teaching associate professor of public policy.
In the class, fellows are given a guided introduction to conducting original research through an arts and humanities lens. They also experience immersive learning opportunities through Southern Futures’ strategic partners, University Libraries and Carolina Performing Arts. These opportunities include access to the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library and the chance to attend the North Carolina premiere of the opera “Omar” by Rhiannon Giddens, Southern Futures artist-in-residence at CPA.
“We’re trying to create these collaborators who feel ready to work with each other, with their local communities and with the South in general,” said Royle, who has one-on-one monthly meetings with each fellow to discuss their personal and academic goals.
Lifelong Bonds Across the Miles
To Agustin Orozco, community is everything.
“Specifically in Latin America, ‘family’ is viewed as more than just ‘nuclear family,’” said Orozco, who was born in Medellín, Colombia, but attended middle and high school in Greensboro.
Carolina’s Latinx and first-generation student communities were a defining reason the sophomore chose to transfer to UNC from Appalachian State University. The community he has experienced as a Southern Futures Fellow has helped make the transition easier.
“Honestly, I haven’t been exposed to a space like this before,” he said of the fellowship program. The fellows first met one another at a cookout at Love House, home to UNC’s Center for the Study of the American South, during the first week of school. Their common interests made conversation a breeze.
“We all knew we had an interest in social justice. So it was like building a relationship from top to bottom,” he said. “I know that these are going to be lifelong friendships.”
Orozco is interested in studying the intersection of racial justice and technology access.
“This is personal to me because when my family first moved to Greensboro, we didn’t have a computer at home where I could write essays for school,” he said. “I remember my dad getting back home from work, and then him driving me back to his office so I could type up my essays.”
With guidance from his mentors, Orozco is exploring how he can add emerging technologies — like artificial intelligence — to his research, too. He cited the racial bias of some facial recognition software as an inspiration for his fellowship project, after learning of a study on the subject led by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“There’s really no limit to the research that they could do here,” Royle added. Fellows “have complete ownership of what this could look like.”
As the program grows into its second year, Orozco, Brew and Brooks are looking forward to meeting the next cohort, which will be expanded to 23 students thanks to generous private funding that has allowed the program to add three additional fellows. These gifts include the establishment of the Southwind Southern Futures Fellows Fund, created by Carolina alumni Ray Owens and Sally Higgins. The fund is the program’s first endowment and will fully fund the research project of one fellow in every cohort, a commitment to generations of Tar Heels to come.
“When families and communities entrust the University with their students, it’s such a gesture of trust. It’s a gesture of meaningful commitment to us,” said Engelhardt. “I hope that over time, communities around the state — around the nation — know that Southern Futures is one of the ways that UNC acknowledges that trust. We commit to those communities, to these future leaders, our students. We see you, and we know how serious this is.”
By Jess Abel ’19, photos by Donn Young
Learn more about Southern Futures.