Tara Hammons ’93 – 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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“My story is, at its essence, a love affair.”

June 13, 2015

Tara Hammons

Tara Hammons ’93

Good morning again, everybody. As Chair Dan Myers ’71 (’75 MD) said, I am Tara Hammons. I am a 1993 graduate from Carolina with a degree in Afro-American studies. I currently live in Bethlehem, Pa., where I am the executive director for a youth development nonprofit, STRIVE Inc. We provide tutoring and mentoring, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to high school and middle school students in the Lehigh Valley.

I’m very excited to be here. I wanted to thank President Dibbert and Chair Myers for asking me to share my Carolina story with you all today. I think, like most of you, when I went back to look at what I wanted to say about why Carolina is so special to me, I realized that my story is, at its essence, a love affair.

  • Girl meets School.
  • Girl falls head over “heels” for School.
  • School asks Girl to move in, and Girl does.
  • Girl moves in and they start a whirlwind romance. Girl travels the world with School. Girl experiences things she never would have imagined experiencing.
  • But, alas, the relationship can’t last. Girl’s parents after four, make that five years, say, “Girl, it’s time to move on,” so reluctantly, Girl does and is very sad about that.
  • But even after Girl has relationships with other Schools, some two, some three years, Girl still can’t get Carolina off her mind.
  • A few years later, Girl returns to Chapel Hill and falls in love with School again.
  • She vows to never leave School, which she doesn’t, and Girl couldn’t be happier.

I want to tell you a little bit about my experiences with Carolina before I became a student, while I was here and since I graduated. I call my “before” time “BC” or “Before Carolina.” For me, Carolina is a family affair. Most people who grew up in North Carolina will understand this: Most households in North Carolina are either a Duke household, an N.C. State household or a Carolina household, and mine was a Carolina household.

Both my mother and my father were huge Carolina fans. Particularly, they were Carolina basketball fans. For me, Carolina basketball represented three things before I became a student. One was a gender-bending experience for me, because not only did my father and my brother follow Carolina basketball, but my mother and my sister were huge fans. And not just stereotypically how women are seen to appreciate sports, as in who’s playing, what’s the score, who won and that type of thing. My mother knew the players, offenses, defenses, and she was just really into the game, and that was different from the way I had seen women involved with sports, particularly men’s sports. I related to Carolina in that way in that it transcended gender roles.

It also gave me a great excuse for getting out of class during the ACC Tournament. My high school basketball coach (I ended up playing basketball) — another huge Carolina fan — she would come to Carolina every year for the Dean Smith Coaches Clinics. She would be here to learn about plays, and she would implement those with our team. We would actually run Carolina plays — that will come up again a little later in my story. During the ACC Tournament, each Friday during tournament weekend, we were in her office watching games during the days, so all of us could get out of class to do that.

Lastly, Carolina basketball for me was a personal boost of confidence. As I mentioned, I played basketball in high school, and our team made it to the state championship two years in a row. We actually won both years. My junior year, I was the starting point guard. After the game, we got to hear the radio broadcast. Before the game started, the radio broadcasters were talking about our team, and the players and what our capabilities were. One of the broadcasters compared me to Kenny Smith ’87, which was like a huge compliment for me. I took that with me as I came to Carolina. I thought: “They think I’m as good as Kenny Smith. That’s awesome.”

Also part of my “BC” or my “Before Carolina” experience, I got to come to Chapel Hill for two nights as part of a Project Uplift program. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with that program, but it is run out of the Office of Admissions and is an outreach recruitment program for high-achieving high schools students, particularly minority or students with families who have never gone to college before. It’s a recruitment tool, so I got to come here for two days. We spent the night in one of the dorms, and then I was hook, line and sinker in love with Chapel Hill, and I knew that this was where I wanted to be.

Then I move into my “at Carolina” time, and fortunately, I applied to Carolina and got in, because that was the only school I had applied to. It was fortunate that I got in, and it’s great that I’m able to tell my story today, because tomorrow will mark the day — the 20th anniversary of me coming to Chapel Hill as a student. I was able to participate in a program called Summer Bridge. Again, I’m not sure whether you all are familiar with this program, but it’s a six-week program for incoming freshmen. It’s for all North Carolina students, primarily first-time students or those from rural areas within the state, to get them prepared for what life is going to be like as a college student. You take two classes that are actual Summer School classes that are already given on campus, and so I was here for six weeks. You got to meet students, and we moved into Stacy dorm, which was the hottest dorm on campus (no A/C in the middle of summer, which got really hot). It was a phenomenal, phenomenal experience, and I got to meet people during those six weeks who I’m still friends with today. I actually met a couple of them last night for dinner. And so it was an amazing opportunity to get settled in school and get your mind right for life as a college student.

I will go back to basketball. When I got here, I had hurt my knee my senior year in high school, and I want to believe that’s why I didn’t get recruited to play anywhere else. Not because I couldn’t dribble with my left hand, but because I was hurt. When I got here, I actually tried out for the women’s team, but my knee was really bad, and so I didn’t make the team.

Someone had mentioned to me about a manager’s program for the men’s basketball team. They said you get front row tickets to every game — they didn’t mention all the work that you have to do — but I thought it would be great and that I would love to do that. I was a manager for a year, which was when Dean Smith was head coach, and it was a great opportunity for me to just get involved with the team I loved so much. I would position myself right behind Coach Smith every game, and I started to realize that I didn’t want to do the manager stuff — I didn’t want to get the waters or do any of that — I wanted to watch the game and listen to Coach Smith. My high school coach taught us all the plays that Carolina was running, so I knew what was going on. I would yell, “Rebound!” and would be talking to the guys on the court. I would say stuff sometimes before Coach Smith would. I thought that I probably should not do that. That was a highlight for me.

After Coach Smith passed away, Pitt University did a tribute to him, and one of the lead stories in the Sporting News had a photograph from when I was a manager, so the picture had Coach Smith and Phil Ford ’78 with me in the background. That was nice, because when I was a manager, it was kind of like I was a celebrity back home because people would see me every game. Because again, I would position myself behind Coach Smith. People would say, “I saw you on TV at the game,” and I would say, “Great!” I would have brought the photo, but I had some really bad 1980s hair, and so it’s not a very flattering picture. That was special to me. I have that picture, and it’s a great remembrance of that special time for me as a student.

Also, one of the other great things when I was in school at Chapel Hill was that I lived in Carmichael dorm. When I was a sophomore, I think the dorm had just opened, and one of the features of that dorm was that it was a foreign language house. The school had a program — there was a foreign language department, where on every floor the students were required to speak a different language the whole time they were there in the dorms. I lived in the French house. It was great, because you’re supposed to speak French, but then I realized that my French wasn’t as good as I thought it was, because half the time I didn’t understand what people were saying. It was a great experience for me. Most of us come from high schools where you’re the big fish — the smartest and high-achieving and always used to doing well. In that situation, I wasn’t the best speaker and knew I had weaknesses, and so it forced me to be self-motivated to learn a lot more so that I could take advantage of this really awesome program. I did that and became a much better French speaker. I traveled to France. I did a summer study abroad to Togo, a French-speaking country in West Africa, and again, like Carolina, it just gave me an opportunity to learn and grow. Having to do that through my own personal initiative was something I learned while here at Carolina.

As I mentioned before, I am a graduate of the Afro-American studies program. I’m sure a lot of you only know that program from the recent scandal. I’m not here to refute or nitpick any of the findings of the report, because what happened is a travesty, not only for the University but for this particular program specifically. What I do want to do is just give you a different perspective of the program from my experience, and that I think is probably representative of most students who take classes in that department and not just people who graduate with that degree, but students from all over campus that come and take classes to learn a little bit more about African history or the Afro-American experience. For me, it was just an eye-opening experience as a young African American woman from a rural area in North Carolina, where you didn’t know a lot about African history, African American history in particular. This program was a platform for students. Not just black students, but white students, Latino students, Asian students to learn about the history, the contributions and the continued need for the Afro-American experience to be voiced in this country. It gave a lot of us students who took those classes a sense of identity, a sense of pride in where we had come before, more than just slavery. For a lot of us, that was all we knew of what our history was when African Americans came here to this country. We had a history centuries before that very brief moment in our collective history.

When I was here, I heard from phenomenal professors. I was here when Sonja Haynes Stone was still here. I was here when Elson Floyd ’78 (’83 MEd, ’84 PhD) was still here. I was here when Lee Greene’67 (’72 MA, ’75 PhD) was here. Colin Palmer was here. Harold Woodard ’78 (’81 MA) — who I was very sad to hear is leaving the University — he was a professor in that department. We were able to get a rich and robust education and take that on to the various fields that we are all into. There are people who have come through that program who are politicians, historians, actors, writers, who are activists in the community. And because of the education we received in that program, we are out now making changes in this world. I am very proud to be a graduate of the Afro-American studies department, and despite the recent notoriety that the program has gotten, it still is a wonderful program and a feature of this University. I want to make sure that we all remember that.

I will move on and talk about a great experience that I had. It was a study abroad program that Professor Harold Woodard started. I think it was the first year that Carolina had started a summer study abroad program to Africa. We went for six weeks over the summer to Togo and did a joint program with N.C. State and the University of Michigan. There were about 18 students who went. This was my first trip out of the United States. I remember telling my mother, who was asking for telephone numbers and where we were going to be, not to call me, as we would only be gone for six weeks, that I would be fine. I’ve never been out of the country and am going somewhere for six weeks that you’ve never even heard of, but don’t call me. I have a 6-year-old now, and I can’t imagine her ever saying that to me. Me, being the independent person I was, thought I would be just fine. Traveling anywhere is a wonderful opportunity for students, but this in particular was great for me. Not just because it was in West Africa, but because it was a structured program. But it was so far beyond what I could have ever thought I would be doing, so it expanded my horizons on where I could make a contribution. There were professors from the United States who were working there, and it just opened possibilities for me that I had not ever dreamed of. That was a highlight during my time at Chapel Hill.

I was very involved with service types of programs. I was a member of the Black Student Movement, where we did a lot of community service activities. I was a member of the Gospel Choir — I used to think I could sing a long time ago, and nobody told me I couldn’t until after school. I was a tutor for elementary school students — just very involved in service, which I got from meeting people here and learning that that is part of what your responsibility is as a contributing member of society, to give back.

I think the most lasting thing that I have gotten from Carolina is just the friendships that I have made. As I mentioned before, someone I met 28 years ago I just had dinner with last night. Facebook in particular has allowed me to reconnect with people I knew in Chapel Hill and would see on a daily basis and again enriches what continues to be my love affair with Carolina.

Since graduation, I continue to be involved with Carolina as much as I can. I was a participant in a few Carolina clubs in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. I am involved in the Black Alumni Reunion and am a participant in the Carolina Alumni Admissions program. I’m not sure if you all are aware of that, but the admissions officers can’t be everywhere all the time, so they ask alumni to sometimes participate in career fairs. I’ve done that in D.C.; I do it in Pennsylvania, but also, when I was in London, I participated in an international college fair for Carolina. I was able to again talk to interested students who want to hear about Carolina. As you can tell, it’s easy for me to talk about how wonderful this University is and try to get students who might not ever have the opportunity to come and visit this campus personally to hear from me what Carolina has to offer and what a rewarding and enriching place it can be.

Participating on this board has allowed me to stay involved, stay informed and stay connected to Carolina. I hope to keep doing this however I can, and keep learning about the phenomenal things that Carolina is doing. In the last meeting, we heard about the School of Pharmacy, and today we heard about the School of Media and Journalism. To be able to share that with people, with rising students, is great. I have a niece and nephew who are Carolina students now, and I will continue to spread the word and keep Carolina going as the amazing University that it is.

One last story that I want to tell will show how near and dear Carolina is to me. I had some plumbing issues a few months ago, and I sent an email out to some folks in my neighborhood for recommendations for a plumber. Most sent back the same one or two names of plumbers, and one other neighbor sent back a referral. She said: “This guy is very good. He’s just a one-man show. His name is Dean Smith.” I said, “That’s it! My plumber is Dean Smith.”

Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk to you today.

The best thing, though, is that my Carolina story is still being written, mainly through my participation on this board. At each meeting, I learn more and more about the amazing things we are doing as an institution, but I get to experience things I may not have taken advantage of during my years here as a student. For example, in April, after our last meeting, I went to a Carolina baseball game. Don’t know why, but I never did that when I was a student. At the meeting before that, I went to the Ackland Art Museum, a wonderful resource right here on campus that I can take advantage of, even though I didn’t as a student.

But I also get to do things that I often did as a student — just walking around our beautiful campus, drinking water from the Old Well, having lunch on Franklin Street, buying UNC gear from the Student Stores.

And I’m not sure it’s going to end anytime soon. Maybe start a Carolina Club in the Lehigh Valley? Come to Camp Blue Heaven? Football games? That’s the best thing about reconnecting with the University. It’s not only about giving back. I always get something, in more cases much more, in return.