PITTSBORO — During senior year of high school, it can feel like an overwhelming task to decide which direction your future should go.
If you decide you want to go to college, there can often be limiting factors like cost or location. Students at Northwood High School understood those challenges, and it led them to develop the Atkins Chatham Scholars Fund.
This student-led, student-funded scholarship aims to remove the barriers for Chatham County students to attend four-year colleges or universities by providing scholarship funding for underprivileged students.
“We’re the first for students, by students scholarship in the county,” Revy Godehn, a senior at Northwood and co-director of the Atkins Scholarship, said. “That makes us unique because we are students raising money for other students by going out into the community.”
The 2020 recipient, Michael Rodriguez from Jordan-Matthews High School, is now a junior at UNC-Charlotte pursuing a degree in physics. He was given $2,000 from the fund.
Now in its third year, the scholarship team hopes to raise at least $2,500 for the scholarship. The money will be given to one student in the district who meets three criteria: students must be pursuing a bachelor’s degree, possess a GPA of 3.0 or above and have a household income at or below $60,000.
The Atkins Scholarship began during COVID-19 as a way for students to help their peers navigate some of the hardships from the pandemic. It’s run through Chatham Youth, a student organization aimed at building community connections for students through service and engagement.
The scholarship is named for Simon Green Atkins, an African American educator from Chatham who was born into slavery in 1863 and devoted his life to improving health, housing and economic status for Black North Carolinians. He served as founding president of Winston-Salem State University, a historically Black college, and the North Carolina Negro Teachers’ Association.
So far, the scholarship has raised about 40% of its goal, raising around $1,000. The students have also made deals with other high schools in the district to ensure a portion of proceeds from prom tickets go toward the scholarship.
The scholarship committee is working with Chatham Education Foundation to select the winner and track funding. The group has also collaborated with student councils at other high schools to spread the word.
“Chatham Education Foundation is excited to partner with Chatham County Schools’ students as the non-profit lead for the Atkins Scholarship Fund,” Jaime Detzi, executive director of Chatham Education Foundation, said. “We are proud to work alongside these amazing students as they lead the program with professionalism, creativity and a true dedication to adding scholarship opportunities for their peers.”
This year’s scholarship team is five Northwood seniors and one senior from Chatham School of Science & Engineering. They’ve taken the Atkins Scholarship in a new direction, focusing on small local businesses and school fundraisers to generate funding.
“This scholarship is a good way to get involved in the community and show you care about students,” said Scott Oglesbee, senior at Northwood and president of Chatham Youth.
In 2022, only 26% of North Carolinians graduated with a four-year bachelor's degree, according to myFutureNC. That number is even lower in Chatham County at 24%.
Fifty percent of North Carolinians graduated with a college degree of some kind. (associate, bachelor's, or graduate degree), according to myFutureNC. Chatham County is at 49%.
While the scholarship can’t completely alleviate those systemic education issues, Godehn said it’s a step in proving Chatham students value education and want to minimize the attainment gap.
“In our modern society, it’s vital to have access to education,” she said. “It’s having another way to help the community to have the freedom to explore careers and go farther.”
Gio Cacciato, a senior at Northwood and co-director for the Atkins Scholarship, said he feels that when it comes to higher education, the playing field isn’t always even. He said that’s especially true when you compare Chatham to surrounding wealthier districts like Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools or Wake County, which have access to more local funding opportunities and have more local scholarships. Atkins is one of only a handful of Chatham-specific scholarships.
“This isn’t open to students in the Triangle or students in the region, it’s just Chatham,” Godehn said. “No matter what, it’s going to help Chatham County.”
The group said it was important to them for the scholarship to be accessible and achievable. Godehn said she hopes the scholarship will give the county the push it needs to have more opportunities for students for brighter futures.
Oglesbee said the goal of Chatham Youth is to build a bridge between students and the community. Beyond the Atkins Scholarship, the organization also runs CCS Serves, a hub for students to connect with community service opportunities in the area and serve with local businesses and organizations.
“By providing volunteer opportunities and providing access to higher education, the goal is to make both aspects of the community more in tune with each other,” Oglesbee said.
As the county grows, Oglesbee said connecting students and businesses is even more important. Businesses are flocking to Pittsboro with the rise of Chatham Park and economic development announcements, which takes away much of the small-town feel Pittsboro once had. Oglesbee said Chatham Youth hopes to build community connections between students and new businesses.
As the program grows in future years, the student-run scholarship committee hopes to be able to provide funding for four-year scholarships instead of just one-time donations.
“Above all else, we just want to make a genuine impact and actually know that we helped people,” Godehn said.
Other students on the Atkins Scholarship committee include Northwood seniors Lily-Kate Witcher and Ben Starling, and Chatham School of Science & Engineering senior Sean Abenes.
Clarification: a previous version of this article state 26% of North Carolinians and 24% of Chatham residents graduated with a "college degree." Those figures only represent bachelor's degrees. The article has been updated to include additional data points.