Winter commencement spotlight: ‘A true Tar Heel’

More than a decade ago, Barbara Jones left Carolina after her sophomore year and began a series of service jobs that included the Marine Corps, law enforcement and Emergency Medical Services.

This weekend, Jones will receive her bachelor’s degree in history from the College of Arts and Sciences, returning “home to Carolina,” she said, to finish what she started.

“I don’t like to leave things unfinished,” said Jones, who grew up in Kernersville and will move to Asheville after commencement. “I definitely wanted my degree to say University of North Carolina.”

Jones was always successful academically, but fate and circumstances steered her in a different direction. It was a random naval engineering class at Carolina in 1999 – taken to fulfill a math credit – that shifted Jones’ course toward ROTC and eventually enlisting in the Marines.

Jones served for four years before moving on to law enforcement. She later used her GI Bill to earn her associate degree in Emergency Medical Technology.

Then during her years working as a Wake County paramedic, Jones became sick with Stage III melanoma. She underwent a number of surgeries, and the disease left its mark, crippling her with chronic issues and a compromised immune system – ultimately ending that career path.

Jones, now a cancer survivor, said the experience propelled her to go back to school.

“Getting a degree has always been something that I wanted to do, and it never seemed possible,” Jones said. “It always seemed just out of reach.”

Finally, the timing was right.

“My first day back as a full-time student, I could have just cried,” Jones said. “I was so proud. Being a Carolina graduate means that I’ll be part of a community that goes back more than 200 years and I’ll finally be a true Tar Heel.”

With – finally, after so many twists and turns – a Carolina degree.

Story and video by Melanie Busbee, UNC Communications and Public Affairs