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A special flourish for Carolina Firsts

he transition from Morehead City, North Carolina to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wasn’t always easy for Cyndel Brunell.

Not only was she adapting to a new town, but as the first in her family to attend college, she was also learning the ins and outs of what it means to be a college student.

“When I came here, it was a lot to take in and a lot to figure out by myself,” she said. “I didn’t really have anyone. My parents wanted to support me but they didn’t know how to do so a lot of the time.”

This weekend, Brunell’s determination will pay off as she finally receives what she came to Chapel Hill to earn: a college degree.

And on Friday, her diploma – already special – received one final flourish: the signature of Chancellor Carol L. Folt, who is personally signing the diplomas of every Carolina First (662 in all this year).

“I’m doing it because it means a lot to me,” Folt said. “I feel like in that way I am able to really connect to each one of you personally and let you know how important your own path is.”

In a tradition the chancellor brought to Carolina from Dartmouth University three years ago, Folt signed the first batch of diplomas for first-generation students during a brief ceremony at Dialectic Hall on May 6.

Brunell, Heather Fairchild, Mina Fouad, Olivia Erin Horton and Candace Jones all had their diplomas signed in front of their families and faculty mentors. The five students are also recipients of the The Friday Award, named after former UNC system President William Friday. It is presented to first generation students who represent commitment to public service and education.

“It means something that she’s recognizing first-generation college students,” said Horton. “It means something that she’s signing our diplomas first.”

Horton said she hopes her new diploma represents a new standard for her family.

“When you become the first to break the cycle of not going to college, you become passionate about it and you become a spokesperson — and go on to help other people go on to do what you’ve done,” she said.