Virginia Carson Scholar deepens understanding of service, self in JamaicaMarch 7, 2019 • Erin Reitz • 1 Comment
“This is the year. This is the year I’m going abroad.”
When Tochi Okeke (’20) began her sophomore year, she was determined to step foot outside the United States for the first time. But her mission wasn’t simply to go; she wanted to grow.
Virginia Carson Scholarship
Okeke applied for a Virginia Carson Scholarship with the hopes of exploring her passion for service in a foreign setting. As a Bonner Leader with years of experience interning at TABLE, a local non-profit organization that provides healthy, emergency food aid to hungry children living in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Okeke felt excited about deepening her understanding of service at a non-profit abroad.
The Virginia Carson Scholarship, named after the Campus Y’s Executive Director from 2000-2009, provides scholarships to undergraduate Carolina students who secure unpaid internships with non-profit organizations. Alumni created the scholarship to honor Carson’s commitment to expanding opportunities for all students to pursue careers in the public sector. Through this fund, Carson’s impact on generations of UNC students endures.
“During her tenure as Campus Y Executive Director, Virginia supported countless students in the Y, Student Government, and across Carolina’s campus in their journeys as undergraduates. She continued to cheer them on as they pursued grad school, founded non-profits, brought food and medical care to underserved communities around the world, and led political campaigns. She also tirelessly fundraised to meet capital campaign goals necessary to renovate the historic Campus Y building – ensuring that Y students had a facility to support programs,” explained Meredith Flowe (B.A. ’04, J.D. ’10), the 2003-2004 Campus Y Co-President. “Many alumni she mentored, her husband Terry, and her many friends came together to establish this fund to ensure that Virginia’s work supporting students would continue for generations to come.”
In 2018, the Virginia Carson Fund made its first distribution. Five Bonner Leaders, including Okeke, received between $1,000 and $1,500, enabling them to gain professional experience in community advocacy leadership roles.
Girlz with Goals
With innumerable service-based international organizations requesting volunteers, Okeke wanted to be careful selecting a placement that would be mutually beneficial. After an extensive search and multiple meetings with Sarah Smith, the Campus Y’s Global Civic Engagement Coordinator, Okeke secured an ethical internship with Girlz with Goals in Ochos Rios, Jamaica.
“It’s our top priority to ensure that our students’ global service empowers and elevates the voices of community members.,” explained Smith. “Tochi’s internship with Girlz with Goals was a wonderful, ethical choice because she was working directly with a local leader.”
Okeke embarked on her first adventure outside the US with courage and curiosity. When she arrived in Jamaica, she was grateful to find a warm community through Tanya Isaie, founder of Girlz with Goals. Isaie, who Okeke still affectionately refers to as “Mom,” helped Okeke navigate transportation, find housing, and enjoy plenty of home-cooked meals.
Ochos Rios, Jamaica is a coastal city that welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists every year; but beyond its resorts’ walls, locals face political conflict, violence, and poverty. Girlz with Goals aims to empower young girls to stay in school, prevent pregnancy, and envision themselves as future leaders.
Okeke and three other counselors worked long hours at the Girlz with Goals Leadership Center planning a summer camp for about 20 local girls from disadvantaged neighborhoods. Although the camp’s anticipated funding didn’t come through from the government, Isaie encouraged her interns to ignore what they didn’t have and focus on the impact they still could make.
“Misses Isaie really pushed us. She knew what we were capable of, even if we didn’t,” Okeke said. “By the time we got to the end of camp celebration, we were exhausted and amazed that we really did it.”
Okeke and her fellow counselors succeeded in providing campers with transportation, breakfast and lunch, and engaging activities for two weeks. They facilitated workshops on topics like self-esteem, setting goals, business planning and creativity. They also supervised the girls during field trips, including a group tour to the University of the West Indies.
In the midst of navigating a new country and culture, Okeke was heartened by the connections she formed with the campers.
“We may come from different countries, but we have similar personalities, similar senses of humor and similar struggles,” said Okeke. “The biggest lesson I learned from the experience is that we’re all in this together. We like to focus on our differences a lot, but we’re all on this Earth doing the best we can and our differences aren’t as great as they seem.”
Ripping off the Band-Aid
Okeke treasures the relationships she formed in Ochos Rios and hopes to return to Girlz with Goals Leadership Center in the coming years. But now that she’s checked international service off of her bucket list, she’s motivated to continue making a difference close to home.
Okeke was drawn to the Bonner Leaders Program as a first-year at Carolina because she wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the systemic issues, like food insecurity and healthcare access, that affect her neighbors.
“I had an idea of injustices that were happening, but I wanted to dig deeper into why they were happening,” explained Okeke.
From mentoring and event planning to grant writing and data analyzing, Okeke has gained an array of rich professional experience in the public sector. When she graduates in 2020 with a double major in Exercise Science and African Studies, she is interested in pursuing a secondary degree in public health to continue defining what it means to make her service count.
“My classes and service have taught me so much about global hierarchies and systemic issues that keep people oppressed, and these issues aren’t going to change with simple charity and Band-aid solutions,” Okeke said. “I know now more than ever that I want to work hard and take the time to implement real change.”