University Students Empowered to Act as Change-Makers in Rural North Carolina

When Ashley Jones left home for college, she was unsure of what she wanted to study. And, she did not think about going back to Mt. Airy with its small town charm, closed factories and tourism built on its popularity as the hometown of actor Andy Griffith.

Taj Nasser had already decided on a career in the medical field, and like Ashley, he did not consider launching his future in his hometown. He grew up in Wilson, an eastern North Carolina farming community that has one the largest tobacco markets in the country.

Both students now have ambitious plans for their communities: Taj hopes to operate a free medical clinic one day, and Ashley wants to open a center to work with children with disabilities. Both say their participation in the Golden LEAF Scholars Leadership Program has helped them clarify their professional goals and enabled them to see how they can make a contribution in their hometowns.

“I really didn’t think about rural counties,” says Taj, a sophomore at East Carolina University in Greenville. “The scholars program helped me think about why I want to go into medicine. If I’m going to be useful, I want to serve people who do not have enough doctors, who need more medical attention. The program strengthened my vision.”

Golden LEAF’s Purpose

The Golden LEAF Scholars Leadership Program, developed by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®) for the Golden LEAF Foundation in Rocky Mount, NC, is designed to provide the scholars with job opportunities in North Carolina’s rural areas and to foster leadership skills in the scholars so they will have the tools necessary to return to their hometowns or other rural communities in the state as future community and business leaders. Golden LEAF was created in 1999 to manage one-half of North Carolina’s share of funds from the Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies. The foundation has provided millions of dollars in scholarships to help students from eligible communities attend the state’s colleges and universities.

“The Golden LEAF Foundation is contributing to the future leadership of rural North Carolina in significant ways,” says Laura Weber, CCL’s project director for the program. “These scholars are going to be change-makers in rural North Carolina.”

Now in its second year, the program currently provides leadership training and internship opportunities to 192 freshmen and sophomores who receive Golden LEAF scholarships to attend North Carolina’s public and private colleges and universities. Most of the scholars are the first generation in their families to attend college. The program had 63 sophomores return this year for the second phase of training. Their hometowns are in 52 of 78 counties in the state designated eligible by Golden LEAF because they are rural and tobacco-dependent or economically distressed.

Golden LEAF-Funded Internships

The eight-month leadership program begins with a three-day leadership conference at CCL’s Greensboro campus, attended by the scholars and coaches who mentor them during the entire process. Each scholar finds a summer internship in his/her hometown, paid for by the Golden LEAF-funded program, and completes a community needs assessment. They then come back together to share results and lessons learned at the end of their summer internships. In the program’s inaugural year, 99 freshmen participated, with 93 of them finding internships – many of which were in business, education, government, medicine and service industries.

Ashley, a sophomore at Davidson College, worked at Lifespan Circle School, a daycare for children with special needs. “Being immersed in the work made me more passionate about going back and helping to fill in the gaps for children with disabilities,” she says, adding that “It’s going to take a new generation of people to help [her hometown] get back on its feet.”

The leadership training has boosted her self-confidence, and she has become more active in programs at Davidson. There, she spends Saturday mornings with children who have disabilities, and every day she tutors a first-grader with vision problems.

During his internship last summer at Wilson Memorial Hospital, Taj noticed that patients coming into the emergency room had a lengthy wait for care. He discussed the issue with hospital administrators and was later included in a study of potential changes. A new plan was put into place shortly after his internship ended.

“I learned that I can help make changes,” says Taj, who recently started the first campus support program for Golden LEAF Scholars and serves in his university’s Student Government Association. “If I stay determined and focused, I can make a difference.”

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