By Charlotte Fryar
The unusual thing about interviewing students and alumni of UNC-Chapel Hill as a student and alumna of the same institution, is just that—you are always connected in some way to the stories that people share about their time at Carolina. Even across interviews with alumni who were never on campus at the same time or traveled in very different social or academic circles, I often hear a shared institutional resonance, which has to do with the particularity of being a student at Carolina.
I’ve come to expect that shared connection when interviewing alumni, whether it manifests itself in shared geography (You know where the Pit kinda sinks in and fills up when it rains, by the Daily Grind, well it isn’t that any more now is it? Well I was walking across when…) or shared experience (I got interested in UNC watching basketball with Charlie Scott…or Michael Jordan…or Vince Carter…or Tyler Hansborough). As an interviewer, I look forward to these moments in oral history, both because they help to warm the formality of an interview, and they powerfully echo, that despite difference in age or race or any other marker of identity, that we have something in common. And as an historian, I am always looking for shared connections and experiences to help make sense of the past.
But recently, it was a lack of shared experience that resonated deeply with me. In the last two months, I’ve interviewed three black alumni (or soon-to-be alumni) of UNC about their undergraduate experiences, which included discussions about their relationships with faculty members.
Renee Alexander Craft, a professor in the Department of Communications and a member of the Class of 1994 (and the SOHP’s former acting director), said this about the importance of having faculty support her and her ambitions: “Every message I had gotten from the time I got to campus said you are powerful, you are capable, you can change the world, and so I came back with no notion otherwise.” A sense of her own power as an undergraduate student repeated through the interview as she described the faculty members who gave their time to her and her aspirations.
I heard this sentiment too from Christopher Faison, a member of the Class of 2000 and current program coordinator for the Men of Color Engagement Office. In his interview, he listed the faculty members, many in the former African-American Studies and History Departments, who had challenged and supported him as an undergraduate student. “The more I learned about UNC’s history,” Chris said, “the more I understood how important my time was at UNC, and to take advantage–to understand the shoulders I stood on.”
When I sat down for an interview with a current student and member of UNC’s Honor Court System, Kendall Luton, I was expecting a similar description of affirmative support from benevolent professors. But Kendall described a different phenomenon he has witnessed from faculty. “Going through the Honor System,” he said, “I see a lot of professors interact with students of color, male or female, and a lot of these students are first generation students that are coming through the Honor System process. And I’m seeing the professors talk down to them, and that’s not what should be happening.”
This was a reminder for me that oral history is so rarely only a way to learn about the past or to record the events of the present. Oral history confronts us with experiences we might think we can guess at, especially when everyone on campus is walking around in a loss-to-Duke haze, but simply cannot. And more than the illusion of shared experience, because we are all part of the network of the University, we are implicated in each others histories and experiences.
For those of us who hold multiple relationships to Carolina—I, myself, am an alumna, graduate student, staff, and sometimes-instructor—there is obligation to evaluate in what ways your current position affords you an understanding on your past position and calls on you to act accordingly, as a teacher and as a mentor. Renee described this obligation to listen and act with eloquence and passion: “The last thing I’ll say about those wonderful mentors, so often when I said, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I don’t know how to repay you,’ they said ‘pay it forward.’ So I’m very clear on what it is I must do and why I have to do it.”