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‘A magic piece of paper’ for Carolina Firsts

For Omar White, graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was never about him. It’s always been about setting an example for his community and family.

He even plans on handing his diploma straight to his mother when he graduates this weekend.

“This is hers, as far as I’m concerned,” the first-generation student said. “It’s a product of her raising me and the values and morals she instilled in me. I would not be who I am at all if I wasn’t her son — I wouldn’t be here.”

But first, his diploma needed to make another stop: beneath the pen of Chancellor Carol L. Folt, who is personally signing the diplomas of every Carolina First. In a tradition the chancellor brought to Carolina last year, Folt signed the first five during a brief ceremony May 8.

“It’s such an honor to sign your diplomas,” she said. “We have more than 600 first-generation students who will be graduating this Sunday and I’m going to sign every single diploma of the Carolina Firsts. It means a lot to feel that I actually touched those diplomas for the people who worked so hard to be here.”

During the brief ceremony at Dialectic Hall, first-generation students White, EmmaLee Kantner, Amber Glancy, Aura Victoria Castillo and LaCorey Cunningham all had their diplomas signed in front of their family, friends and advisors.

The five students were selected as winners of the Bill Friday Award, which is given to first-generation students who represent the former president of the UNC system’s commitment to public service and education.

“It’s humbling to say the least, just to know you’ve worked this hard — and to be recognized by the head of the university and to have her tell you that she’s proud of you means a lot,” said White, who will be graduating with a degree in journalism and mass communications. “It feels good to know that all your hard work paid off and people are proud of you … the University has a whole is proud of you.”

Kantner, an English and comparative literature graduate in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the signing meant more than just officially graduating.

“I’ve done this all on my own,” she said. “To actually be here today, it’s very meaningful and it’s a symbol of what I can do and what the University can offer the students. It’s a big day for me.

Growing up, Kantern never envisioned herself attending college and receiving a diploma, so watching Folt personally sign her diploma makes the document even more meaningful.

“It makes it a magic piece of paper,” she said. “It will definitely be something that I treasure forever — not just as a diploma but as a memory.”