Robyn S. Hadley ’85 – My Carolina Story

For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.

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“The confidence and connections I had gained during my time at Carolina and then at Oxford allowed me the opportunity to explore a career I never knew existed.”

Oct. 8, 2011

Robyn Shernita Hadley ’85 (Photo by Ray Black III)

Robyn Shernita Hadley ’85 (Photo by Ray Black III)

Six hundred seconds. … Ten minutes. … It seems like quite a bit of time. Unless, of course, you are asked to talk about “your Carolina.” Is it a place, a state of mind, a song … this morning, “My Carolina” is a challenge and one that is punishable by unspeakable crimes if one exceeds their time limit.

My earliest recollections of Carolina are the basketball games on TV … those nights we children were allowed to stay up past our 9 o’clock bedtime to watch a coach named Smith and a guard named Ford turn a measly 10 seconds on the clock into 10 minutes, by using timeouts, four corners, commercial breaks and overtime to get the win. Because I was born and raised in Graham, just 30 minutes away from Carolina, I also remember football Saturdays. Every Wednesday evening and Saturday morning, my brother and I helped my Dad clean up a doctor’s office. The office was just off Highway 54, and every Saturday morning and evening a tide of Carolina folks went up and down Highway 54 as if Chapel Hill were the pot of gold at end of the rainbow. And I can’t forget the army of state troopers that scattered themselves along 54.

For my family, Chapel Hill was a sports mecca. Chapel Hill was where you went to the hospital if the pain or the price tag was more than you or county hospital could bear, and it was where you went to get braces if your family couldn’t afford them. Chapel Hill was where many of my relatives, church family and classmates parents worked — as secretaries, cafeteria ladies, housekeepers, maintenance men and so on. That was the Carolina I knew until about age 15. when I began to understood that Chapel Hill and Carolina were a place that even I could go to college.

My Mom always told my brothers and me that we could go to college, but neither we nor my parents had any real idea how we were going to pay for it. That just wasn’t dinner conversation by parents, who were a manual laborer and a school secretary and parents who had not gone to college. We just knew to work hard and things would ultimately work themselves out. When I was a ninth or 10th grader, a young black woman in our community named Lisa Jeffries, now Lisa Jeffries Caldwell of Winston-Salem, won a Morehead Scholarship. My Mother and others had always talked about these scholarships, but I only knew about athletic scholarships. I couldn’t really imagine that someone would give you money for all of your college and you just had to keep your grades up. I tracked down Lisa Jeffries and called her one evening. She told me about this Morehead Scholarship, and she told me that it was very competitive and very hard to get, but she wished me luck and offered to help in any way. She didn’t know me from Adam, but she was nice and helpful. I said to myself, “If she lived in Alamance County and got that scholarship, maybe I could get one, too.”

By senior year of high school, hard work, prayer and, yes, divine intervention worked in my favor. With the support of my parents, great teachers and coaches and an angel of a school counselor, in the spring of 1981 I was accepted to Harvard, Duke and UNC with full scholarships to each. For three weeks, I was a nervous wreck trying to make a decision about where to go to college. Finally, my dream to become a Wall Street lawyer was getting closer to reality with the opportunity to do my undergraduate work and possibly attend law school at one of these institutions. Cards, flowers, telegrams, visits and phone calls during the day at school and to my home came mostly from Carolina alums who were giddy about Carolina, the Morehead and couldn’t imagine how I could possibly consider Duke, much less Harvard. It was more than overwhelming for a 17-year-old from Exit 148 in Graham.

In the end, several factors played into my decision to come to Carolina. By this time, I had a cousin here, Henry Foust, who said that Governor’s School was one of the most important experiences that prepared him for Carolina. I, too, had gone to Governor’s School in his footsteps and my Governor’s School classmate, Lori Ann Harris, was a freshman at Carolina, and she loved it. Lori Ann’s brother, Kelvin, was also a Morehead. Equally important to me was that I would get to play basketball for Carolina and my family could come to games and see me wear the blue and white in Carmichael. Finally, there was a publication printed by the Morehead Foundation called, quite simply, “Morehead Alumni.” Neither Duke, nor Harvard sent me anything like this document. In this book were the names, class years, graduate schools attended, professions and workplaces of Morehead alumni all around the world — many of them lawyers, some of them on Wall Street. I wanted to be a part of that Carolina family, that Morehead family that special group of people who got to play basketball in Carmichael. I wanted to have an experience in the classroom and outside the classroom that was fun and would prepare me to be successful at whatever I chose to do in life and that whatever would be a long, long, long, long, long way from Graham. To say that it was a challenge to get through freshman year at Carolina after coming from Graham High School is an understatement. You know, we don’t really hear very much about the transition to Carolina for those of us who came from rural areas and small towns to this city on a hill with 18-year-olds from big other cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, Chicago and London: Places where they had AP courses.

I must admit that after about a month of being at Carolina I called my Mom late one night and told her to come and pick me up. My bags were packed, I was ready to come home and I was in tears. To this day, I admire her calm. She asked me why I wanted to come home. In short, I told her Carolina was too big and too hard. There were so many kids that had done so many more things than I had done and so many kids that had so much more material stuff than I had. It just wasn’t the place for me. She told me to try it just one more day, just one more day. If it wasn’t working out after just one more day, she would pick me up, bring me home and we would figure things out from there. I never called her back that next day to pick me up. We laugh about the late night in September during my freshman year. Those who have passed on: Dean Hayden Renwick, Mebane Pritchett, Sonja Haynes Stone, Colin Rustin, Dr. Duncan MacRae, Joe Martin, Congressman L. Richardson Preyer, among others, and many still living all played a major role in helping me get adjusted to and ultimately succeeding at Carolina. Trudier Harris, Les Garner, Doris Betts, Charles Waddell, Kaye Daughtry, Alan Stern, Lillie Edwards, Thad Beyle, Teresa Artis and too many more to name. During my sophomore year here, it became abundantly clear that there was so much more to Carolina than basketball. What also became clear was that I could not do all those other things like junior year abroad, SGA and certain types of internships and play Division 1 basketball at the level I needed to play at Carolina. So something had to give and it was, indeed, basketball. Jimmy Wright, formerly of the Morehead Foundation and now the director of the Jefferson Scholars Program at UVA, will attest to the tears and boxes of Kleenex that I went through after cutting the cord with organized sports.

I could not have imagined what life at Carolina would be like after letting go of basketball. In my junior and senior years, I now had the time and latitude during my day, evening and summers to take more challenging classes, meet more people, join clubs, start clubs and travel, travel, travel. There is no question in my mind that the experience of a rigorous Carolina undergraduate education, the challenge of competitive, but fun to be with classmates, all the “bells and whistles” of the Morehead program, plus the kindnesses and mentoring of Mebane and Betsy Pritchett, Hayden and Sandra Renwick, Mel and Eulada Watt and Harvey and Cindy Gantt — couples who all but adopted me — made me a competitive Rhodes candidate and ultimately a Rhodes Scholar. At the end of the day, I discovered at Oxford that lawyering was not what I wanted to do. The confidence and connections I had gained during my time at Carolina and then at Oxford allowed me the opportunity to explore a career I never knew existed. In the 20-plus years after Oxford, I grew up in the world of international trade, export-import management, contract manufacturing in China — an experience and industry I am certain I would not have understood or been prepared for had it not been for the good start of a Carolina undergraduate education — my first trip to China in 1986, the experience of an Oxford graduate education and the opportunity to travel the world as an undergraduate and graduate student.

Whenever I lived or traveled abroad, I carried Carolina T-shirts, hats, key rings or whatever was available. It was amazing to see how many people had heard of Carolina — from Beijing to Benin, from Nigeria to the Nile, from Jerusalem to Jungfrau, from Moscow to Tokyo. People know Carolina — my Carolina. Like some of you, I have stood in department stores, trekked to the U.S. embassy or found a reasonably safe hotel bar to watch a Carolina basketball game during the light of day or during the middle of the night. The two most frequent responses to my North Carolina T-shirts, hats and flags were 1: “Wow … do you know Michael Jordan?” and 2. “Isn’t that where Jesse Helms is from?” My Carolina since returning to N.C. in 2004, and becoming a caregiver for my Mom, I have had the time to reconsider what I wanted to do with my time, talent and resources. In addition during 2004-05 I lost some very important people in my life who passed away unexpectedly, and it allowed me to seriously examine what I wanted to do with the second half of my career.

I must say that the GAA has played a key role in helping me figure some of that out. Since 2005, I have had the opportunity through GAA and the Black Alumni Reunion to reconnect with old friends and make new ones through various alumni events and activities. Thank you, Bernadine Alston-Cobb, Dr. Janet Southerland and Doug Dibbert. I have had the opportunity to plan for future generations of Tar Heels by raising money and raising aspirations. If anyone had ever told me 30 years ago that I would be back in Graham working with children in my community to go to college I would have said, “No way.” No doubt, there’s a rush you get from “doing business” and “doing deals.” But I have always known that there is also a “rush” you get from helping a child get somewhere they never knew existed. That somewhere for some of them will be Carolina … My Carolina. Many, many someones helped me get places I could never have dreamed of because I didn’t know they existed. For that I am grateful to “My Carolina.”