First-generation student wins graduate school scholarship

Christopher Carter, born and raised in the small town of Elkin, bagged groceries as a teenager. Before college, he’d never ventured more than 400 miles from home.

Then he won a life-changing Morehead-Cain Scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And is he ever going away next fall.

Carter, a UNC senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and first-generation college student, has received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, a merit award covering all expenses for one to three years of graduate studies at the University of Cambridge in England.

The award was created with a $210 million donation to Cambridge from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Seattle-based foundation operates in developing countries and the United States, working domestically “to ensure that all people – especially those with the fewest resources – have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life,” its website says.

Between 80 and 100 scholarships are issued annually to college students worldwide for intellectual ability, leadership and desire to perform community service. Carter’s scholarship is valued at about $24,623 for nine months of study plus $20,880 for living expenses.

Carter, the son of Debbie Lynn Carter and Reggie Lee Carter of Elkin, is Carolina’s first Gates Cambridge Scholar since the awards began in 2001 and one of 30 U.S. winners this year out of 800 applicants.

A 2007 graduate of East Wilkes High School in Ronda, Carter is double-majoring in political science and history in the College.

“I want to pursue a Ph.D. in political science with a focus on Latin America, and completing a master’s in Latin American studies at Cambridge will really help,” he said. “Eventually I would like to be a professor of political science in comparative politics.”

Carter already has had a taste of travel through the Morehead-Cain, a full, four-year merit scholarship that also provides four summer enrichment experiences. Carter’s summers included studying political history in Argentina and Chile and teaching English in Ecuador.

“In Ecuador, I taught indigenous children to play basketball, hiked through the Amazon jungle, was in a bus accident and ate more yucca than I care to remember,” he said. What he gained: “An insatiable desire to continue helping individuals in Latin America.”

At Carolina, Carter has won five awards for research, enabling work including an honors thesis on public opinion of the new health-care law. He created and distributed a survey to a national sample of 900 Americans. In March, he will present his findings at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C., and the Midwest Political Science Association annual conference in Chicago.

Carter is active in student government, president of the honors program’s student executive board and vice president of Phi Beta Kappa. He has been a group leader for the first-year student mentoring program and played intramural sports.

Carter’s volunteer service has included teaching writing and math in two Chapel Hill elementary schools, helping the Interfaith Council for Social Services and taking notes for Carolina students with disabilities.

“I was happy just to be able to come to college,” Carter said. “Having these great awards to come to college has been a real blessing.”