Unsung Heroes strive to even out the playing field

Erica Wallace (left) and Jan Yopp will receive the MLK Unsung Hero award.
Erica Wallace (left) and Jan Yopp will receive the MLK Unsung Hero award.
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Many students arrive at Carolina knowing exactly what to expect. Their parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles all came here. They know what classes to take, where to get ScanTrons, even how to spell U-N-C with their arms. And even if they don’t know, they have lots of friends and family they can ask.

Those aren’t the students that this year’s faculty and staff recipients of the MLK Unsung Hero Awards are concerned about. These heroes have different titles. Erica Wallace is coordinator for peer mentoring and engagement in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Jan Johnson Yopp is a professor in the School of Media and Journalism and dean of Summer School for Academic Affairs. But they have a similar mission: to even out the college playing field so that every student can succeed after arriving here.

“I don’t want us to be the university that says, ‘We’re the university that admitted you. Hope to see you at graduation in four years!’ That is not the university that we are,” Yopp said. “That might work for 80 percent of the students here, but what about that other 20 percent?”

Each year, the MLK Unsung Hero Awards go to two faculty, staff or community members who have exemplified a steadfast commitment to inclusion. Through their everyday work and advocacy, these awardees have made significant contributions to social justice, equity and diversity and have made a positive difference in the lives of others at Carolina.

Wallace and Yopp will receive their awards on Feb. 19 at the MLK Celebration Keynote Lecture and Awards Ceremony in Memorial Hall. This event was rescheduled because the University was closed on the original date due to snowy weather.

“We applaud Jan Yopp and Erica Wallace for their dedication and commitment to furthering the University’s mission of sustaining an inclusive community for all at Carolina. In striving for a more inclusive campus through their initiatives and activism, they have positively impacted potential and matriculated students, as well as underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities, who continue to reach their highest potential,” said G. Rumay Alexander, Carolina’s chief diversity officer and associate vice chancellor for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. “Their work exemplifies the efforts made by many on this campus toward ensuring equity that often goes unrecognized. We value and acknowledge their contributions and are pleased to recognize them as this year’s Unsung Heroes.”

Peer to peer

Wallace has spent the past three years running three separate peer-mentoring programs, serving 300 to 400 first-year and transfer students. They are the Minority Advisory Program (which dates back to the 1970s), the Carolina Covenant Peer Mentoring Program and the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program (C-STEP).

“Peer mentoring is one of the ways colleges and universities have assisted these students in that transition, because it has nothing to do with the student’s intellectual capacity,”
Wallace said. “If you think about the inception of colleges and universities, they were made for elite white men who came from wealthy backgrounds. So it’s great to have a person who comes from a similar background to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been through what you’re going to go through. Here’s what I do to navigate this place.’ That gives these students confidence that they can make it.”

She is also the chair of the Womxn of Worth Advisory Board, a collaborative campus effort involving undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty and staff from various departments. The group’s mission is to create and sustain a community to promote academic excellence, holistic student success and wellness, identity development and sisterhood.

Wallace told her own story as an example of how people are on individual journeys, how she wanted to attend Carolina but wound up at Davidson College and loved it. “I made my way to Carolina when I was meant to be here,” she said.

A big part of what Wallace and Yopp do is to reassure the students they meet that “not all those who wander are lost,” as J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote.

“They have a certain idea of what college is or what it should be, that they have to do XYZ to be successful,” Wallace said. When they have to drop a class or change a major, they can get derailed—unless someone is there to let them know it’s OK.

“To help them find where they’re supposed to be and how to get there,” Wallace said. “I think that’s super important.”

Feeling different

Yopp felt a little different herself when she came to Carolina as a student 50 years ago. She was in the second class of women admitted as first-year students. In her 40 years working at the University, she has tried to make it a more inclusive and supportive place.

As a professor in the MJ School, she has been a co-adviser to the Carolina Association of Black Journalists student group since its inception 26 years ago. She was instrumental in creating the Chuck Stone Program for Diversity in Media and Education, an intensive summer workshop for high school students. She also teaches in the four-day workshop modeled on the multicultural Rainbow Institute that she and the late professor Chuck Stone co-directed in the early 1990s.

Yopp has done the same as dean of Summer School. “Summer School has many functions to introduce incoming students to campus, so they can learn their way around, get accustomed to academic rigor and make friends,” she said. “Summer School also helps students stay on track to graduate.”

In addition to supporting the Summer Bridge and Chancellor’s Science Scholars programs, Yopp partnered with other offices to launch the Transfer Student Program and Start Strong, new summer transition programs that especially benefit nontraditional, underrepresented, veteran and first-generation students as they begin their academic careers at Carolina.

“We’re just the facilitator,” Yopp said. “It’s people like Erica who are making it happen.”

Story by Susan Hudson, University Gazette