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Betsy Oliphant ’96 – 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. As our Carolina family seeks ways to stay connected during these challenging times, board members are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.


“I considered it – and still do – my great pleasure to serve this school.”

April 9, 2009

Listen Now

Where to begin … so many, many places I can think to serve as appropriate starting points of “My Carolina Story.” But the official starting point was probably when my oldest brother, Rence ’89, headed off to Chapel Hill in 1985. I was starting sixth grade, and we had only been living in North Carolina for two years at the time. The school — and college, in general — didn’t really strike me for any reason at the time. We’d moved a number of times, and college seemed so far off for me that I didn’t have a thought about where I might end up.

A little background:

My parents — Denise and Larry — had five children in seven years, and I am the youngest. This is an important factor in my story for a several reasons, which is obvious to anyone who hails from a large family that has nomadic tendencies. Of the five children in seven years, we were born in four different states. And to answer a couple of common questions: No, my father was not on the run. Yes, they are Catholic.

I hail from two types of Wildcats. My mother attended Villanova University for a year, at which point she left “before they asked her to leave,” in her words — and pursued her nursing degree from Philadelphia’s Fitzgerald Mercy. My dad graduated from Northwestern, as did his mother’s sister and his father, who was an all-American football player and a talented baseball player there. This side of the family is made up of huge Big 10 fans. And I confess I always felt I was meant to attend Northwestern. Originally from Chicago, I had long been exposed to the strength of the musical theater and journalism programs offered at this prestigious school in Evanston, Ill.

However, as my oldest brother headed to school in Chapel Hill, I watched my father, who adores college sports and college life, truly fall in love with Carolina. I witnessed him become a fan of UNC at Chapel Hill and turn into the number one fan of the University in a way that brought a tear to my eye, and had I had access at the time, would have called for an ESPN production crew to document, bottle and distribute.

Ultimately, my parents sent three of their five children to Chapel Hill. My oldest sibling, Rence, as mentioned, graduated in the spring of 1989 and then two other siblings attended other fine North Carolina institutions of higher learning. David barely got into and barely squeaked out of Belmont Abbey near Charlotte, and my sister Nancy was awarded the Benjamin N. Duke scholarship at, well, Dook. Then my brother Peter ’95 — a mere 16 months my senior — was the second in our family to enroll at Chapel Hill.

Well, I for one was destined for other halls, for a tradition of fine performance or journalism introduced to me by a history of family members in Illinois. Right? But I should mention two very important factors here.

Factor number one: My family was transferred to Ontario, Canada, at the start of my junior year of high school. And besides having five years of high school, and extremely friendly and kind people, Ontario, it is a cold, cold place.

Factor number two: A letter from my brother Peter arrived from Chapel Hill. My brother — 16 months older and always too close for comfort — left me with the constant near-bruises on my upper arms that my grandmother always referred to as “love taps” to prove it. In the midst of my college considerations, Peter sent me a sappy letter, expressing how much he missed not having me around for the very first time in his life and how he hoped I’d consider coming to Chapel Hill in the fall. It just wasn’t the same without me, he’d said.

Partially to appease him and partially die to the subzero temperature in Toronto, I applied to UNC early, in November, as my “gauge school.” If I applied and did not get in, I would apply to Miami of Ohio and some other school. If I did get in, then I’d apply to Northwestern, Princeton and, um, Duke.

By the way, do you know the difference between Princeton and Duke? Princeton is fake Gothic. And Duke is fake Princeton.

Anyway … I got in. A sappy letter from your older brother and a winter you couldn’t bear another day of and … to hell with this, why would I want to fill out another application and why would I possibly want to go anywhere else? As my father had convinced me, it was the perfect school. It was the only school I applied to.

And I was off to Chapel Hill. August of 1992. As the youngest of five kids, one can almost understand that my parents slowed the car down to a mere roll and practically pushed me out with my belongings with a friendly wave and a “call us if you need anything!” as they drove to the beach, kid-free for the first time since less than two years after they wed.

I’d arrived at orientation for out-of-staters: a blessing in disguise as an official, tax-paying in-stater, arriving from Canada. I moved into Cobb dorm the last weekend of the summer before classes along with the other “strangers” who didn’t arrive with a quarter of their county’s class, and participated in orientation with all other people who knew no one.

BLISS!

And terror.

I honestly met my four closest friends through my four years at UNC in that orientation weekend — from San Francisco, Chicago, Winston-Salem and Montclair, N.J. —  and we lived with one another through all four years. We ultimately all pledged the same sorority, spent spring breaks and fall breaks together and, well, you get the picture. Friends for life, I am delighted to say.

There were side effects from being from lumped in and influenced by these out-of-state students, including my closest friend, who was a Morehead Scholar. And by that I mean: I actually studied. A lot. My brother Peter at the ATO house arrived home at Christmas break to find that his little sister made the dean’s list. How could that be? I’d blown his cover. Now he had to study. It sparked a natural competition that went on for three years. (Three and a half, if you count his “victory lap” of the extra semester.)

As a freshman, one hears of countless ways to get involved on campus; it truly can be overwhelming. There are multitudes of political, educational, athletic, social groups and beyond. I entered UNC as a student full of energy, caring and enthusiasm to contribute. As I entered sorority rush as a freshman, I remember connecting with one house, but wondering if committing to a sorority as a first-year would limit my commitments in other areas that appealed to me more. Carolina offered so many ways to get involved and I dove into each of them. I was ready to participate and had no intentions of letting classes interfere with the social side of things.

Over the course of my four years, I was involved with several shows at Student Television, served as a Freshman Camp Counselor, joined Carolina Fever, was a campus tour guide, proudly performed in various productions with Pauper Players and Company Carolina. My sophomore year, I did pledge Kappa Kappa Gamma and I took advantage of the wonderful study abroad opportunities offered by Carolina, spending the spring of my junior year in Seville, Spain. Ole! My senior year, I served as a marshal. (Probably no surprise that I was assigned to the Activities Committee of this board.)

But chief among these activities I embraced was The Order of the Bell Tower. I’d heard of this club in one of my first weeks on campus. A chance to represent the student body at alumni functions and have a voice in what they learned about the current climate on campus? A chance to connect with other students who loved and wanted to serve this University, too? Sign me up. I was happily inducted as one of six freshmen that year and was deeply involved throughout all four years. I remember wanting to run for president and help lead the organization, but wondered if I stood a chance as I was spending the semester in Spain (ole!). I sent my speech from a tiny computer lab at the Universidad de Seville to be read aloud by someone else on my behalf and talked sincerely about how we were all involved in OBT because of our love for the University, and how I was excited about extending that love of to OBT. I considered it — and still do — my great pleasure to serve this school, to serve the students and alumni. And I loved the people in this group. I was delighted to be elected president and practically live at the GAA my senior year. (Incidentally, I received the J. Maryon Saunders Award the year I graduated and had the absolute pleasure of meeting Eleanor Morris ’55 for the first time.)

In 1995 the University celebrated its bicentennial, and it was an absolute grand affair. Among other activities, President Clinton spoke at Kenan Stadium and, with one of my five closest friends from that orientation weekend being the daughter of a Secret Service agent, we were right on the field to hear him address us and to shake his hand afterwards. True excitement.

Some amazing classes shaped my Carolina experience, including Paul Ferguson’s “Performance of Children’s Literature,” history of film classes, American studies, the list goes on and on. I think we can all agree that the excellence in education offered here is a true highlight of the Carolina experience. And my parents were quick to remind me, uh, that is why they were paying for me to be there.

I started off in the journalism school, genuinely attracted to the idea of radio and TV but not knowing exactly what else one could do in those fields besides write and report the news. It sounds almost silly saying it out loud now, but when you are the ripe old age of 18, all of the positions and jobs that go into an entire industry don’t just jump out at you.

At the time, OBT ran an “externship” program. Not as long as an official “internship,” the program allowed for students to job shadow alumni working in a field you thought might be right for you. I took advantage of this program, and as my classmates all headed to Florida and the like to spend a week of spring break, I headed to balmy Pittsburgh to shadow someone on the 6 o’clock news. There was a catch: He didn’t go to UNC, but his wife did. So I had to spend half the week with Nancy Polinski Johnson ’80 at WQED, the PBS station, and half with him, David Johnson, who still today is the anchor at WPXI. I ended up not being too jazzed with what I saw at the news studio, and loving what I saw at PBS. And I got to meet Fred Rogers, which, for me was a true thrill. But keep in mind you are hearing from someone who currently works with puppets. I returned to Chapel Hill and changed my major to communication studies. (I was one of the first classes not able to graduate with an RTVMP degree but instead the ever-ambiguous mass comm degree).

I then interned for the year with a reporter at WUNC, the local NPR affiliate, which was a great opportunity. It was the summer of the O.J. Simpson trial, and at the end of every interview she would allow me the chance to ask one question. With the microphone in hand, I would ask each interview subject the same question: “O.J. Simpson: guilty or innocent?” (This was asked of a state senator in Raleigh when we were covering the issue of hog waste spills, a member of the Italian women’s Olympic judo team, and someone in a gym near the coast set up as a shelter for folks escaping an impending hurricane.) However, this seemed to lose its charm after about the third time, and I was instructed to “just hold the equipment.”

Fast forward to graduation day. It was bittersweet. We’d worked so hard to get to this day. There was loads to celebrate. But there was a tragic fire at the Phi Gam house, and some of our classmates were lost. Some mothers who had rolled into town to celebrate their children’s graduation and Mother’s Day were denied this chance. As I say, it was bittersweet.

My first job out of school was one actually using my major and my minor (ole!). Mission accomplished. I moved to Bristol, Conn., to work for ESPN’s International networks — or as it is known in the industry, the Extremely Small Paying Network. My day job was acquiring rights to programming for channels outside of the U.S., the training for which was essentially bartering for what you could get for free. Outside of this, I longed for production experience; I wanted to get my hands into things. I started to spend Saturdays working in studio on “College Game Day.” I was going to be watching college football at home anyway, so might as well make some money at it, right? Then I began to associate direct live Spanish and Italian soccer matches, working in the control room in Bristol. When The Heels came to Hartford to play a first-round NCAA game, I was tipped off that the team would be coming through for a tour, I donned my Carolina blue, lingered in the studio and managed to jump into a photo behind the Sportscenter desk with Antawn Jamison ’99, Vince Carter ’99, Ademola Okulaja ’99 and the rest. It was a true kick, and I still have that picture on my desk at work.

I liked what I was doing, but I began to notice and question that we were five white people in Connecticut trying to determine what programming people in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe wanted to see on TV. Sure, soccer is part of it, but what else? I looked around and found the perfect graduate program to allow me to look closely at how different cultures use television differently. And with luck, it brought me back to Chapel Hill for a time. And to Spain (ole!).

When I came back to Chapel Hill for grad school, I was in search of a place to live for only one semester. I completely lucked out and lived in what is believed to be the oldest house in Chapel Hill, The Widow-Puckett house on Franklin Street, next to the Tri Delt house and across from the UNC System president’s residence. I rented a room in this historic home from Ann Stewart ’74, who’s grandfather had previously lived there: Robert Burton House, class of 1916. House, for whom the undergraduate library is named, was the first chancellor of UNC, and in the semester I lived there, I had the extraordinary experience to learn about his lifetime career with the University. Fascinating.

The Trans-Atlantic Masters Program is a comparative political science and culture studies program run by a consortium of schools, including UNC’s Center for European Studies, the University of Washington and five European universities. A mix of American and European students explore how culture drives policy and how policy drives culture. I looked at television in the U.S. and the European Union through that lens. After the semester in Chapel Hill, the graduate program continued in Spain for the year and a half, while I also freelanced for ESPN as a site contact for live Spanish soccer matches. It was the most intense, white-knuckled job experience I have ever had. And while I enjoyed traveling around the country and going to soccer games for this gig, I needed a full-time job when I completed my master’s. I took a job in London (not quite Spain, but a lot closer to it than the U.S.), buying rights and designing sports services for mobile phone distribution in Europe.

A couple of years later, when it was time to re-evaluate what I was doing professionally, it was my professors at UNC that I reached out to, in an attempt to get back in touch with what I loved and how could I make a living at it. I’d forgotten that in James Lee’s audio production class we’d been asked to bring something tangible with us to demonstrate why we were taking the class and I’d brought the record “Free to Be You and Me,” which I’d warped with over-use as a child. I wanted to make something that spoke to kids the way that spoke to me. I spoke with Paul Ferguson, whose classes and lectures inspired me. They listened and gave advice. And even in yesterday’s DTH there was an article about Paul Ferguson being named the first recipient of the Chiron Award, inspired by Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.” As the recipient, Ferguson will deliver an inspiring lecture based on Pausch’s model. It doesn’t surprise me he was selected for this national honor. In the article, Professor Ferguson is quoted as saying his students “can always turn to me for the rest of their lives.” I feel lucky for this truth.

I am proud to say I currently produce preschool television for a channel called Sprout (www.sproutonline.com). One of the three key series I executive produce is a live, daily program for 2- to 6-year-olds called “The Sunny Side Up Show.” Who’d have thought that acquiring international  sports rights and covering live soccer would lead to this and working with the likes of Big Bird, Barney and Oscar the Grouch? My job is the perfect balance of creativity and business for me. And I think my Carolina experience prepared me well for both sides.

Over the years I have connected with fellow alumni through alumni clubs in Hartford, Madrid, London, Philadelphia. I stay connected actively through Facebook, which I am pretty sure last night we all heard Randy Jones ’79 (’82 JD) take credit for inventing. First Al Gore and the internet and now Randy creating Facebook. Wow.

I am honored to have an opportunity to share my Carolina Story with all of you today. And I couldn’t possibly be more pleased that, through the chance to serve on this board, my Carolina Story continues.