Two UNC students receive Luce scholarships for study in Asia

Amber Koonce. Photo by Mary Lide Parker.

Amber Micole Koonce and Cody Mitchell Poplin, seniors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have earned 2012-2013 scholarships from the Henry Luce Foundation in New York City.

The Luce scholarship funds a year of living and learning in East and Southeast Asia for recent college graduates with no prior experience of the continent. The foundation’s goal is to connect future American leaders with Asian colleagues in their fields. Selection criteria include outstanding academic achievement and leadership ability.

With 33 Luce Scholars since the program began in 1974, Carolina leads the nation in its number of Luce recipients. This year, 62 colleges and universities nationwide nominated 143 candidates for the Luce; the foundation chose 18 scholars.

“Amber and Cody are smart, capable and enormously dedicated to their future professions,” said Raymond B. Farrow III, executive director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, chair of the UNC Luce nominating committee and a former Luce Scholar. “They have proven themselves at Carolina and will, no doubt, be the kind of transformational leaders that the Luce Foundation seeks to identify through the competition. Their year in Asia will be life changing, and I couldn’t be happier for them.”

The value of the award varies by assignment. The scholars will learn their assignments in June, spend part of the summer in language study and start their 10-month internships in September.

“Not only are Amber and Cody remarkable scholars, they are also committed to using their skills to address problems across the world,” said Linda Dykstra, director of the office of distinguished scholarships, which serves as an information clearinghouse for prestigious scholarship opportunities like the Luce. “For Amber this commitment is seen through her service to disadvantaged youth and for Cody it is apparent through his commitment to be a champion for the ideals of democracy and sustainable development.”

Amber Koonce

Koonce, 22, is a public policy and cultural studies double major with a minor in entrepreneurship. She is a Morehead-Cain Scholar.

The daughter of Donnie and Masherrill Koonce, Koonce graduated from Providence High School in Charlotte in 2008. She was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s highest honor society for college students, and serves as president of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

While mentoring incarcerated girls in Ghana during the summer of 2009, Koonce noticed that many of them were carrying dolls with blond hair and blue eyes – a contrast to their own features. It was then when she made the connection between that and the discontent with their bodies so she started BeautyGap, which hopes to promote a standard of beauty unique to women of color by collecting and shipping dolls of color to children of color around the world.

She was recognized by Glamour magazine as “the social entrepreneur” in a list of the top 10 college women of 2011 for founding BeautyGap.

After returning from Ghana, Koonce became co-chair of the Campus Y’s criminal justice awareness and action committee, which seeks to enhance student awareness of issues in the criminal justice system through volunteer projects and activist efforts. Through this organization, she mentors incarcerated juveniles to ease the transition from detention centers to school systems.

The following summer, Koonce analyzed the effectiveness and execution of juvenile rehabilitation programs in the Scotland Prison System while mentoring and leading a group through self-reflection and goal-setting workshops.

When she returned, she used her experiences at home and abroad to create a photography exhibit called “Behind Bars,” which displayed the plight of incarcerated youth through images from detention facilities in Ghana, Scotland and North Carolina.

In the future, Koonce hopes to earn a juris doctorate and master of public policy dual degree and become an international children’s rights attorney for UNICEF. For now, she plans to continue her research and understanding of children’s rights and social welfare policy as a Luce Scholar.

Koonce also was recently named by The Root as one its 2012 Young Futurists, an annual list spotlighting the top young African-American leaders and innovators of the future. The Root is a news site featuring an African-American perspective and is owned by The Washington Post.

Cody Poplin

Cody Poplin

Poplin, 21, is a political science and peace, war and defense double major and history minor in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The son of Starr Poplin of Thurmond, Poplin graduated from North Wilkes High School in 2008. At Carolina, he serves as president of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity and a committee member for the Great Decisions program in the international studies department. He has also been on the dean’s list every semester at UNC and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.

In the spring of 2010, he completed a Burch Field Research Honors Seminar on international relations and democratic empowerment in Washington, D.C.  At the same time, he interned at World Vision, a nonprofit organization working for sustainable development and the alleviation of world poverty.

Later that year, Poplin received a fellowship to study with the department of war studies at King’s College London, where he researched the effectiveness of U.S. information and democracy promotion programs in foreign countries during the Cold War. He is now using his work to write his honors thesis on the impact U.S. public diplomacy has on the understanding and international support of U.S. policy goals.

Poplin spent his most recent summer as a cyclist and volunteer for Push America’s Journey of Hope across America, an outreach program that raises awareness and understanding of people with disabilities. For this cross-country trip, he raised more than $9,000 and volunteered for 1,000 hours with people with disabilities.

Back on campus, he has also held various positions in Carolina United, Carolina Mock Trial and Student Congress.

Poplin hopes to explore development and democracy promotion in Asia as a Luce Scholar in an effort to create a network of international cooperation.