Forging a path through service

Andre Ceccotti ’18 had never heard of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when a high school teacher encouraged him to apply for the Morehead-Cain Scholarship. But after witnessing the humility and drive of other Morehead-Cain hopefuls during a campus visit, Andre was sold on Carolina.

Like other scholars, Andre is well aware of the benefits that the Morehead-Cain Scholarship brings, and that inspires him to pay it forward however he can. During a summer internship, he provided translation services at a legal aid organization that serves some of San Francisco’s most vulnerable community members. After graduation, he plans to attend law school and then return to his native Brazil to continue advocating for the underserved.

Until Oct. 12, 2017, the Give for Good: Scholarship Challenge will match all donations, up to $20 million, to the Carolina Covenant and the Morehead-Cain Scholarships. This challenge will help students like Andre forge their own path to leadership through service.

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    string(3710) "Ana Zurita Posas, Scott Hamilton, and Kevin Guskiewicz stand chatting at the GoldenLEAF Luncheon.

Ana Zurita Posas ’24 grew up in Bladen County, a rural area in southeastern North Carolina.

“At first glance, Bladen County was quiet and isolated compared to nearby Fayetteville and Wilmington. However, as I grew up, I constantly recognized one of its strongest features: community,” said Zurita Posas.

“When Hurricane Florence hit Bladen County with huge gusts of wind and tremendous amounts of water, it was the community of families, students, small business owners and local politicians that inspired unified rebuilding.”

Bladen County is one of many rural, tobacco-dependent areas in the state of North Carolina: often rural communities struggle to improve economic vitality and have a lower rate of secondary degrees than urban areas. Rural North Carolinians make up 46% of the state's population but only 38% of UNC System undergraduates.

State funds from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies are stimulating rural economies and helping rural students complete degrees of their choice.

The Golden LEAF Foundation, established by the State Legislature of North Carolina, administers a portion of the settlement money by sending it back into rural communities. The foundation aims to increase economic opportunity for the state’s rural and economically distressed communities through a variety of grantmaking – including scholarships.

In 2020, Zurita Posas was awarded the Golden LEAF Scholarship to attend UNC-Chapel Hill. This four-year scholarship aids students from qualifying rural and economically distressed counties of North Carolina who will attend a participating North Carolina institution of higher learning.

The Golden LEAF Scholarship aims to help talented young students from rural areas gain knowledge and skills that they can take back to their communities. Scholars who receive the Golden LEAF Scholarship get more than just financial support; they receive access to paid rural internships.

“The Golden LEAF Scholarship has inspired me to return to rural southeastern North Carolina in order to enhance mental health education and resources for children and families,” said Zurita Posas who is studying both Geography and Human Development and Family Science.

Golden LEAF Scholars, university officials, and representatives from the Golden LEAF Foundation networked at a luncheon on campus in February 2023. Scott Hamilton, the president and chief executive officer of the Golden LEAF Foundation, and Kevin M. Guskiewicz, chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, were in attendance.

“The Golden LEAF Scholarship Program is a component of Golden LEAF’s strategy to help rural communities thrive by creating a future generation of skilled, educated workers to come back home to live, work, and raise families,” said Golden LEAF President, Chief Executive Officer Scott T. Hamilton. “We see this investment in students as a critical component to the continued success of rural North Carolina.”

“We believe that every student who gets into our university deserves the chance to come here regardless of their financial background,” Guskiewicz said at the event. “The Golden LEAF Foundation shares that passion with us. Carolina now has 109 Golden LEAF Scholars representing rural counties from across our state of North Carolina. Each one of our scholars are here to discover their career path and to be part of our community.”"
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Kristina Hefferle ‘24 and Leah Morrissey ’25 spent the fall 2022 semester looking for elusive male Blue Ridge two-lined salamanders ― bright orange 6-to10-centimeter-long amphibians about the thickness of a pencil, known to hang out around the streams and lakes of the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Stumbling through mountainous terrain in the dark for hours on end, turning over rocks and leaves in muddy creek beds, and looking for an animal the size and color of a baby carrot makes having a reliable research partner crucial.

“I cannot, for the life of me, spot a salamander — but Leah can. And she might miss it when she tries to catch it, but I’m there to back her up if she needs it,” said Hefferle.

It’s the kind of teamwork that develops after a semester of close collaboration at the UNC Institute for the Environment’s Highlands Field Site — a program for a small cohort of UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduates to live and conduct research at the Highlands Biological Station in western North Carolina.

That semester, the duo gathered data on 105 salamanders, three times the number of last year’s survey. Both credit their success to their partnership.

The data compares the genetic makeup of males, their reproductive behavior and how they may change over a lifetime.

“Getting out on the trail, looking for salamanders, just really sparked that childlike curiosity about nature,” Morrissey said. “This program has convinced me to switch my major to science in the hopes of more fieldwork either during school or in a future career.”

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    string(2116) "Ken Donny-Clark stands in a forestIn partnership with the Highlands Biological Station and with permission from the U.S. Forest Service and private landowners, Ken Donny-Clark ‘22 spent the fall 2022 semester searching for Carolina hemlocks along Laurel Knob — the tallest continuous cliff face in the eastern United States, towering at 1,200 feet. Overall, he found more than 30 Carolina hemlocks on the rocky outcropping. But it wasn’t easy.

“There’s a lot of bushwhacking involved,” he said with a laugh. “But I feel like I’ve really earned the data once I’ve gotten it.”

When sampling trees, Donny-Clark removed two cores from each one — a minimally invasive process that does little damage.

Along with the cores he took a series of measurements: the direction he faced when he collected the core, the width of the tree, and the height from the ground to the core site. Then he returned to the lab, where he dried the cores before putting them under a microscope to reconstruct them like a jigsaw puzzle, because most fall apart during the extraction process.

Using a software called CooRecorder, he measured the width of individual rings of the core to build a history for that tree. Tree rings not only inform researchers about the age of a tree, but the weather patterns that existed as it grew — a field called dendrochronology.

He uploaded this data to an online database so that other researchers can access the data.

Finding the optimal climates for these trees to grow can aid conservation efforts by providing the best locations for planting trees to help restore the population.

“We don’t really know much about the growth of Carolina hemlocks and how they’re influenced by climate, so that’s what we’re trying to figure out here,” Donny-Clark said.

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Related Posts


Supporting North Carolina’s Rural Communities

Seeking Salamanders

Hunting for Hemlocks