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Mary A. A. Cooper ’12 – My Carolina Story

“Carolina taught me and continues to teach me from Nashville the power of standing up, speaking out and taking action when something is not right or could be improved.”

June 8, 2019

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My Carolina story began when I was an infant as close as a Tennessean or a member of the National Mafia can be to being born a Tar Heel.  My father, Jim Cooper, received the Distinguished Young Alumni Award, and as he accepted the award, he was holding me.  Don’t worry, I brought photographic evidence of this, and you can pass these around!  I believe I was about five months old in that picture.  Part of his comments that morning were that when I grow up I would be most impressed with this accomplishment because Michael Jordan was also a recipient.  While I was impressed that my father and Michael Jordan received the same award, and this would probably be the only award for which that would be the case, it has been even more amazing to learn what my dad accomplished by such a young age and how he included me along the way.

As I was preparing for this story, I thought about all of the amazing stories that have been shared from this podium.  While my connection to Carolina athletics was limited to cheering from the stands and a few early mornings with the Carolina Men’s Rowing team on University Lake, I was thinking about some of the more extraordinary moments that I had as a student and was inspired.

Serving as Student Body President, I was asked to serve on several committees, usually for things I had no idea about.  One of those Committees was a group that formally invited the commencement speaker.  I thought my role would be primarily to agree on who we would invite, and then come spring I would enjoy the speech in Kenan Stadium with my classmates.  However, on a beautiful April afternoon of my senior year, I received a call from a New York number.  It turned out to be a conference call between myself, Mayor Bloomberg and his speech writer.  They were in the process of drafting his 2012 commencement speech and wanted to hear from a student. I remember being both honored and surprised and very glad that I picked up my phone.  I shared a few thoughts and said I looked forward to hearing the speech, and that was it.  I still remember sitting in the Pit on that perfect April day.  They ultimately crafted his speech and spelled our Carolina to share his advice.  So I thought I would share some more of my story of being a Tar Heel in a similar fashion.

C – for Courage and Community.  I still remember the night before I officially declared that I was going to run for Student Body President. I was nervous.  Why did I and my closest friends think an out-of-state student could win?  Could I do this?  Did I really want to be on the cover of the Daily Tar Heel?  Did I really want to be on the cover of the News and Observer (which happened)?  But I was also excited.  I knew it was going to be an adventure.

While I have a lot of amazing memories of being on campus, I love the time that I was campaigning. I was spending all day outside in the Pit, outside the Dean Dome, and in the Quad, and I was holding these large Carolina Blue letters that spelled out MARY with some of the greatest people I could have ever imagined.  I learned about how a warm community could give me the courage to do such an amazing thing.  It is this connection between courage and community that I continue to seek out for both myself and seek to create in my classroom for my students.

A – for Action.   Carolina taught me and continues to teach me from Nashville the power of standing up, speaking out and taking action when something is not right or could be improved.  However, I also learned from Carolina and from my mom the importance of taking action with grace, empathy and perspective, and that was crucial when I was a student leader here on campus.

R  – for Responsibility.  I chose the word responsibility because of its connection to public service.  In hindsight, I could think of no better university for me to attend because of how Carolina continued to instill and push me to always think about how I could be the best public servant I can be.  I still remember the email from my U.S. History teacher in high school asking me to meet with him after college decisions had come out.  He was a one-of-a-kind teacher who looked at me and said “UNC will be the perfect fit for you.  Go, learn, serve and lead.”

O – for Openness.  When I was dropped off at Parker Dormitory, my dad’s parting gift to me was a map of the State of North Carolina so that I would never confuse Goldsboro and Greensboro and that I could always go back to the map and figure out where a place like Sanford was without having to ask.  My first year it felt like everyone was from Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro and I quickly learned the diversity that was here on campus and how each of the different paths that brought all of my classmates here were worth listening to and worth learning from.

L – for Love.  A love of sports, especially college basketball although I do have a confession:  when I was a freshman I slept through my first UNC-Duke game in 2009.  I didn’t really know it was a big deal, and I didn’t know what it meant to rush Franklin Street.  But don’t worry, my suite mates all took me under their wings and that was fixed by March and April that year when we beat Michigan State for the National Championship and I learned what it meant to rush Franklin Street.  It is a love of place and my husband.  In fact, we were engaged on the steps of South Building after one of my first GAA Board meetings.  I know I cannot talk about this place or the people I have met with Carolina connections without smiling.

I – for Innovation.  Carolina taught me there was always another way to look at a problem.  There is always another solution, and we can always get better.

N – for Nerdiness.  When I first stepped foot on Carolina’s campus I was convinced that I was going to be an environmental archaeologist.  Next thing I knew I wanted to be a doctor.  Then I took a class with Dr. Gangi ’99, ’01 (MPA) and I was going down the environmental science pathway.  The next day I was walking through the Pit, and there was an advertisement for a study abroad program.  Before I knew it, I was taking all of my classes in the FedEx Global Center and was studying abroad in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand with Dr. Niklaus Steiner ’88, learning about the economics of migration of refugees.  Carolina taught me the power of exploring, learning and asking questions, and I found a wonderful home in the School of Public Health studying environmental health sciences.

A – for Appreciation.  The opportunities and support that Carolina provided me and continues to provide other students is outstanding.  It is truly a model for the nation. It is something that fills me with gratitude and always pushes me to think about ways I can give back.  One of the key themes in my Carolina story has been the GAA.  Not only was I first introduced to Carolina in such a unique way, I was also a GAA Scholar.  In fact, when I lived in Parker Dormitory across the street, I think my first day when I was really not sure what to do I walked across the street to the GAA and I ran into Steve Shaw and said “thank you for my scholarship.”  He just happened to be walking by.  Those first few hours when you are not really sure what to do – that’s what I chose to do.  It was lucky that I was right across the street.  During my junior year I remember meeting Doug down in The Carolina Club to ask for advice as I was crafting my platform to run for student body president.  Winning that race then opened the door for me to see Doug and the wonderful GAA staff on a more frequent basis including serving this Board.

The GAA continues to play an important part in my life.  When I think about the last two years on this Board and how much has changed in my personal life, I am thankful that these meetings four times a year have provided such consistency.  Since I have joined, I have moved back to Nashville to be closer to my family and then a year later got married to a Tar Heel.  It is also exciting because just as my Carolina story began about four months into my own life, the next generation of Coopers-Gallisdorfers and maybe a future Tar Heel will be joining me and Scott this November.  We are excited to become parents and are looking forward to this next adventure.  This experience is quite a welcome to the Carolina community almost like the one I had in back in 1990.