More than once during my visit to UNC Pembroke, people referred to the Robeson County campus as a “hidden gem” of the UNC system. Well, enough of that. It’s time for this gem to come out of hiding, because the steadfast work of the faculty, staff, and students at UNC Pembroke deserves celebrating.
It’s no secret that Robeson County and southeastern North Carolina face especially tough challenges when it comes to jobs, public schools, and economic mobility. But UNC Pembroke is tackling those issues head-on, educating the teachers, nurses, social workers, artists and entrepreneurs who will become the lifeblood of this region.
Institutions like UNC Pembroke demonstrate the truly transformational nature of higher education. No matter what difficulties a student faces at home or in their background, faculty and staff work to offer support. Small classes mean plenty of face time with professors, and the resources of a public university mean lots of opportunities for research and community service.
I met students who are closely involved in public education, either training to become teachers or volunteering with local schools. And faculty told me about welcoming hundreds of K12 students to campus every year for science camps, sporting events, and arts performances. In a very rural part of the state, UNC Pembroke serves as an educational hub at all levels, a fitting role for a place that began as a teacher’s college for American Indians.
During a great discussion with staff, I heard about the joys and challenges of working on a smaller campus. Joy in the close connections between staff and students; challenges from the limited resources available to meet long-range needs.
Chris Scott from Facilities Maintenance recited a perfect little poem of frustration about deferred maintenance, an ode to mechanical creativity so good that I had him write it down: We the willing… have done so much with so little for so long that they think we can do anything with nothing. He captured UNC Pembroke’s repair and renovation backlog better than any spreadsheet ever could.
Thanks to the hard work of people like Chris — and the infusion of bond funding that came to Pembroke after the 2000 referendum — the campus looks beautiful, and students take obvious pride in the place. During my visit to Old Main, the 1923 hall that is the campus’s oldest brick building, I saw a very old photograph of UNC Pembroke. From such humble beginnings — a few mostly wooden structures along a dirt road — the University has grown into a civic and economic beacon for the entire region.
A number of students, faculty and staff from Robeson County told me they’d seen their first play or first musical performance in the Givens Performing Arts Center. Countless schoolchildren from southeastern North Carolina have done their first science experiment or visited their first college classroom at UNC Pembroke. Student Body President Candace Locklear spoke movingly about the University’s role in raising aspirations, in helping students “see themselves in college.”
That’s exactly what the people of the region envisioned when UNC Pembroke was founded in 1887 as the Croatan Normal School, training American Indian teachers. Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin explained that his people have always had a deep belief in the power of education, which is why the growth of UNC Pembroke is such a profound point of pride for the tribe.
It should be a point of pride for all of North Carolina, too. The work happening at Pembroke goes right to the heart of our 21st-century challenge in the United States — creating opportunity for a broader, more diverse population of students.
It’s not easy, as plenty of people reminded me during the visit. But it’s satisfying, meaningful work, and I could not be more honored to help celebrate and advance UNC Pembroke’s straightforward mission: changing lives through education.
I won’t be a stranger. I’ll be back in just a few weeks for the official installation of Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings, and I’m determined to make it back for a football game this fall.