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Helping the disadvantaged earn degrees

Borden’s story of resilience resonates with first-gen students

“We all have our stories.”

That thought sticks in the back of Dr. Paula Borden ’98’s mind as she helps lead the three-pronged Carolina Higher Education Opportunity Programs (CHEOP) Office at UNC Chapel Hill. She understands that the students in the programs, all of which are either first generation college students, from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, from rural areas or from underrepresented minority groups, have their own hurdles to overcome, their personal stories to tell.

Borden does too, just of a different type. For most of her career, she has been actively engaged in programs to help the underserved achieve their educational goals. Both of her parents and the man she fondly refers to as her “bonus dad” have master’s degrees. She virtually grew up on a college campus in a part of North Carolina where you could literally bounce a basketball from one university quad to another. Her mother is a former administrator at North Carolina Central University and her stepfather is an associate professor with Duke University’s School of Medicine. She also spent many vacations with her father in New York City, going to museums and the theater and learning to make the connection between education and the arts.

“I’ve benefited from parents who, since I was out of the womb, have literally groomed me to value education and to help others,” says Borden, co-director of CHEOP. “From day one I really valued higher ed, but that’s because I was exposed to it.”

Educational attainment is not just about earning a degree; it is also about knowing how to navigate the journey. For first-generation students, the process of getting into college can be overwhelming: figuring out the best fit, filling out applications, sorting through the financing options, knowing there is a thing called FAFSA and why it’s important. Even college-educated parents struggle with all these moving parts, so students whose parents haven’t gone through the process themselves are often at a stark disadvantage.

The CHEOP programs are designed to guide students through the process of getting into college and then succeeding once they’re there:

  • Upward Bound provides support to disadvantaged high school students by adhering to the adage “it takes a village,” working with the student, their parents/guardians, teachers/school counselors and community resources to help disadvantaged students get into college.
  • The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program works to support disadvantaged UNC undergraduate students and help them to gain admission into Ph.D. programs.
  • The aim of the North Carolina Health Careers Access Program (NC-HCAP) is to increase the number of disadvantaged students who are educated, trained and ultimately employed in the healthcare professions. Borden began her career at UNC in NC-HCAP, working as a college outreach coordinator and over time was promoted to co-director.

Borden’s commitment to educational success over the years has helped many disadvantaged students get into college and earn advanced degrees. Borden, who is in her second year as a University trustee, has experienced her own peaks and valleys. And, she says, “we all have our stories.”

“My story is not being a first-generation student,” she says, “but, when I was in elementary school, I was diagnosed with dyslexia.”

Borden’s parents and teachers noticed early on that she wrote some of her letters backward and that it took longer than they thought it should for her to do much of her work. She was tested, and identified as a student who processed things differently and needed supportive resources to succeed in school.

Borden never considered being dyslexic a handicap – in part, at least, because she had a support system eager to help. She attended Hill Learning Center in Durham all the way through high school, splitting time each day between Hill, where she learned in classes with only a couple of other students, and a public school. She’d take math, reading and language classes at Hill, then finish out her day elsewhere.

“I never felt dyslexia was a deficit,” she says. “It was just something that made me different, in a good way. It doesn’t have to be something bad. ‘Hey, this is a part of who you are. Now let’s see what we can do to help you to be the best student and the best person you can be.’”

Borden now has a Ph.D., so clearly she’s overcome any hurdles dyslexia presented. But living with a learning disorder helps her relate to the students she has spent her career guiding.

We all have a story.

Making a difference in many ways

Borden didn’t always want a career in higher education. As a young girl, she loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian, though she didn’t really understand what she’d have to study to become one. “I don’t like science, and science doesn’t like me,” she says.

At Wingate, Borden majored in communication, and it’s easy to see why: She presents information clearly and concisely, a big benefit when it comes to telling high-school students what it takes to get to college.

She chose Wingate in part because of its size. “That was something that was very important to my parents,” Borden says. “You’re not a number. You’re a person, an individual.”

They were also impressed when the college-fair sales pitch stressed Wingate’s student-support services. “I think when my mom heard that, she was like, ‘We’re going to visit the campus,’” Borden says. “And once we visited the campus – you know, Wingate’s beautiful. It was hard not to fall in love with it.”

My mentors said, ‘Boots on the ground is great, but if you really want to help students and make a difference, you need to be sitting at the table and be part of the decision-making process.'

At Wingate Borden got the support she needed to thrive academically, and she also found time to sing in the gospel choir and be a cheerleader. But she still couldn’t quite see a clear career path, so she signed up to serve for a couple of years as an Americorps volunteer. Working with the Orange County (N.C.) Literacy Council, she found teaching adults to read to be an eye-opening experience.

“It really showed me that my bubble was smaller than I thought it was,” Borden says. “I mean, I was literally using software to help some people read at a second-grade level. They were so amazing, and they taught me so much.”

They also inspired her to make higher education her life’s work. Borden worked for the Morehead Foundation for a few years, while also studying for a master’s degree, before she was hired by NC-HCAP.

She loved the feeling of helping students who might otherwise not go to college discover that the higher-education door was open to them. She was happy guiding students through the process, opening their eyes to the possibilities college afforded them.

But others saw bigger things for her.

“I used to tell people, ‘I want to be boots on the ground. I want to be hands-on. I want to work with students. I want to make a difference in that way,’” Borden says. “My mentors, who were all women, said, ‘Look, boots on the ground is great, but if you really want to help students and make a difference, you need to be sitting at the table and be part of the decision-making process. You need to be sitting at the table helping to advocate for these students.”

That meant getting her Ph.D. Now Borden helps oversee and set the direction for a whole host of programs. She also finds time to serve on the Hill Center’s board of directors and sit on the admissions committee for the UNC Adams School of Dentistry.

Serving on Wingate’s Board of Trustees has been instructive for Borden, who says she’s excited to serve and looks forward to giving back to her alma mater. She’s getting the 30,000-foot view of what it takes to run a successful college. And with the University having become a healthcare-education powerhouse in the 24 years since she graduated, Borden could prove a valuable resource as Wingate continues on that path and bolsters its DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) efforts.

“As a woman of color, I am especially interested in trying to increase the number of doctors, nurses, PAs and other health care professionals that look like me, people from Black and brown communities,” she says, “because we’re so underrepresented in those areas. Just like those earning Ph.D.s, we’re a very small fraction of the population.”

That’s a big part of Borden’s story: overcoming her own personal challenges to earn a Ph.D. But perhaps more important, she’s helped many others earn theirs over the years.

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