The Catalyze podcast: Welcoming sophomores as new scholars, celebrating educators, and what’s ahead in 2024, with Morehead-Cain President Chris Bradford
Morehead-Cain President Chris Bradford sat down with scholar co-host Benny Klein ’24 to share about an initiative that welcomed more than a dozen sophomores from UNC–Chapel Hill into the Program last fall, recent efforts to celebrate and support educators in North Carolina and beyond, and what’s ahead for the Morehead-Cain Foundation in 2024.
You can learn more about the initiatives by visiting our 2022–2023 Year in Review.
The episode’s intro song is by scholar Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul.
How to listen
Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you, Chris, for being here. It’s November 2023. Last night was our Fall Banquet, where we had a chance to reflect on the past year and some of the incredible new initiatives that Morehead-Cain has taken on. We also had the chance to welcome in the class of ’26, which is our inaugural cohort of second-year students. Chris, could you talk about the Sophomore Intake Initiative?
Thank you for having me here, Benny. It’s great to be in the room with you, and it’s a really exciting day. As you know, last night was our Fall Banquet, where we not only heard some amazing speeches from some current seniors but also had the chance to formally welcome the class of 2027 and welcome 15 new scholars in the class of 2026, our first sophomore intake. And it has been amazing to see the impact that these young students have already had on UNC-Chapel Hill over the course of their first year and a bit on campus.
As you might know, we invited faculty, staff, and TAs from across campus, from the community, to nominate students on campus who they thought had the potential to shape the future of UNC and to shape the world. And we received 159 nominations of sophomores at UNC. They included transfer students, they included young researchers, they included decorated leaders, and to my surprise, the vast majority of them had never previously been in the Morehead-Cain pipeline. Morehead-Cain’s mission is to identify, invest in, and empower future leaders. And this is not a second chance to apply for Morehead-Cain, but it’s a second chance for Morehead-Cain to identify extraordinary talent and to identify that talent early enough in their UNC journey in which we can meaningfully invest in young leaders and transform their trajectory to impact here and in a lifetime of leadership beyond here.
I have really enjoyed getting to know the 15 new scholars. They are Morehead-Cain scholars in every sense of the word. As one of our trustees, Holly Gwynne-Timothy, said when she met them, “These are scholars who just didn’t realize it until the start of their sophomore year, but in every way, they are like you and your classmates and those who have come before you for the past 70 years.”
That’s wonderful. I know I was personally very excited to hear about the initiative, hear friends who said, “I just got nominated to be a sophomore scholar,” and talk them through that process. I would love to know how this came about and what were some of the earliest conversations.
If we rewind the clock about 18 months, we spent considerable time asking ourselves, “How might we maximize our impact on the world when the Foundation turns 100 in 2045?” And it struck us that that maximization of our impact includes both identifying a broader group of extraordinary leaders, transforming the way in which we invest in them through an experience that really reimagines college, and also investing in and connecting an intergenerational community that works together to shape the future of North Carolina, of the United States, and indeed, of the whole world. And as we explored different opportunities that might be in front of us to either shape our selection process or shape the way in which we think about college, we also recognized that there might be opportunities to expand our pipeline, not just by adding high school students, but by thinking about who might have never had the opportunity to be Morehead-Cains but should be here. And if they had the opportunity to enter our community, who might have a transformational impact at UNC and beyond, consistent with our mission.
What I discovered that I wasn’t expecting, Benny, was the way in which this initiative would transform our relationships across the University. We are reaching out to faculty members, staff members, to the admissions office that reads transfer applications, and we are asking them, “Who do you see that you believe has transformative leadership potential?” And unsurprisingly, we heard many stories about current Morehead-Cain Scholars that they didn’t know were Morehead-Cain Scholars. But we also heard many stories about young people that we’d never had the chance to meet before, and to see them enter this community and to recognize the impact that they might have as a result of opportunities to go abroad for the first time, opportunities to engage in professional experiences that are unbounded by the need for financial remuneration or to explore a research interest with a Lovelace Fund grant. That’s really exciting to me.
It’s great to hear the context of not only how the initiative came about, but also the way that it’s broadened Morehead-Cain’s reach across campus, and formed relationships that hadn’t been there before. And so I really like the chance to hear about that. We discussed the Fall Banquet last night. It was the first time that new scholars met old scholars, and it’s always a great chance to be together as a community. Could you talk about the ways in which this impact will influence existing and future scholar classes within the Program? How they will form together. And what that might look like?
It’s a great question. We opened the sophomore intake with two imperatives. One imperative was that the scholars had to meet the bar of every scholar that had ever come through this Program. They had to be at a similar level to yourself in the criteria that we have used to assess scholars for the past 75 years. But we also recognize that they had to have an experience here on campus that was similar to yours as well. They had to be fully integrated as scholars in every way, shape, and form. Last night, one of the things that I was really excited about was when we welcomed our new first-year scholars, our new sophomores. We actually introduced them alphabetically, regardless of what year of entry, because they are all scholars equally. They will have an onboarding experience in which the whole sophomore class, new and old, will get together in January for a day before school starts. And they’ll have the opportunity to participate in all of the experiences that make Morehead-Cain unique, from a finalist weekend in which they stayed at the Carolina Inn, just as so many of our scholars have in history, to an Outdoor Leadership experience that they will do with NOLS this year in spring break. They will have all of those experiences that make you a scholar and that create the cultural fabric that allow them to have meaningful conversations with every scholar who has come before them and every scholar who comes after them, whether they enter as a first year or enter as a sophomore.
So, anytime there’s a new initiative, people tend to have questions, and I know that you’ve helped answer some of mine. What questions have you been approached with from the Morehead-Cain community about this new initiative, and how have you helped to address those?
I think that’s a great question, Benny, and I think it’s important to note that the initiative will continue to evolve. We will learn from the experience of this year and the experience of inviting sophomores to shape both new insights about how we might better attract first-year students. At some level, I am amazed that so many of the scholars who were nominated never applied to Morehead-Cain, even though they were eligible. So that says something about how we might change our marketing in future years, but also how we will continue to evolve the sophomore process.
I think there are a couple of questions that people have asked me pretty consistently. One of those questions is how much of the value of Morehead-Cain is about attracting talent to campus rather than accelerating the talent that is on campus? And I think that it’s very true that Morehead-Cain played a very important, attractive role for you and your classmates at UNC. I do not believe we should be reducing the number of first-year scholars that we are enrolling out of high school. In fact, I hope there might be opportunities to expand those numbers, as we see in our high school process that there are large numbers of students with extraordinary potential. But I also believe that there are students who we can meaningfully transform in their journey, who can actually add depth to our scholar community, reach into spaces and departments that our scholars are perhaps less likely to be in, and who will shape the future of UNC in a way that’s been consistent with our mission for a very long time. And I believe that when we attract those scholars into our community, we will prepare them for a lifetime of leadership, just as we prepare you for a lifetime of leadership. So that’s one piece. I don’t think we should reduce our commitment to enrolling high school students, but I think there’s a meaningful deepening that happens here.
I think the other big question relates to something I mentioned earlier, which is there’s a real important focus from our alumni community on ensuring that new scholars that enter our community have an equal experience to those scholars who are already in this community. They must wear the Morehead-Cain Scholar badge with honor, and they must know that they have all of the rights and privileges of the scholars who have come before them. And we’re hoping to address that through being very, very deliberate in our programming experience for these scholars when they join us.
And what I have been so inspired by is the way in which the new sophomores have been present in our spaces and engaging with our current scholars from the day in which they learned of their selection. They are exceptional additions to our community, and I can’t wait to see what you all accomplish together.
And what are success metrics for this initiative that you think at the end of year one, as you mentioned, there can be iterations in continuing to learn and grow. However, what are signs that you know this was a great addition to our Program?
First, I would like to see that our scholars feel integrated. I would like to see that members of the class of 2026 who came here after high school feel that their peers who joined as sophomores are their equals, and I would like to see that those who joined as sophomores feel fully integrated into the community. Second, I look forward to following the impact that our new sophomores have and looking at how that impact and how that engagement in our programming compares to our scholars who join us out of high school, and how they engage with alumni, and how that engagement with alumni compares to the scholars who joined us out of high school. I think it’s really important that we take an honest look at the performance of this cohort and understand what we can learn from it to improve the experience of all students in the Program. I also think that there are metrics of success related to the way in which we transform our high school selection process through learning from these sophomores. One of the things about Morehead-Cain is that we’ve never had a counterfactual group. We’ve never had a group of students who are having an extraordinary impact on Carolina that we didn’t identify in high school, and the opportunity to ask ourselves what did they look like as high school students, and what might we learn from what they looked like as high school students to change our selection instruments for high school students, or to change the way in which we communicate to schools about who we are looking for, such that we can get the best and most diverse and broadest pool of scholars possible who meet our extraordinarily high bar.
Interesting. I didn’t even recognize that looking at the selection process from a sort of hindsight view in that way could be a way to measure success. So, thank you for sharing more in depth about the initiative. And speaking from the scholar community, we’re looking forward to getting to know the new scholars even better.
If I can transition, in December, you shared the findings of the Boston Consulting Group’s alumni survey. Broadly speaking, what did we learn?
I continue to be astounded by the depth of engagement and gratitude that I see from Morehead-Cain alumni all over the world. And I don’t think that is surprising to you as a scholar who has the opportunity to engage with alumni. And it’s not particularly surprising to me, either. But it is striking to see what I would say are three A’s that exist across our alumni base. One is a deep affinity for the Program. The second is a deep appreciation for Morehead-Cain. But the third, importantly for me, is a real aspiration for this institution. We were established to try to do something great, and in our alumni survey, we saw a lot of alumni asking us how we will continue to raise the bar and continue to be great. And that, to me is very motivating, and I hope that some of the initiatives that we’re tackling help us do just that. I also think that we recognize when we look at a survey like this, that there is a profound value in intergenerational connections and an aspiration from alumni to invest in the scholar experience. And I don’t know that we’ve deliberately created the right types of opportunities for that, and I think if we do so, there are benefits for alumni and scholars alike.
As an example, I think many alumni would love to be involved in our selection process, and we benefit from the service of over 400 alumni in that process every year. But I don’t know that we’re clear in our communication to alumni about how they can engage in that process, what it looks like, and how their input helps us make the decisions that we make. And similarly, I don’t know that we’re clear and deliberate in our communication to alumni about how they might meaningfully invest in scholars during their time on campus and how they might really help move scholars forward. We want to create more opportunities for shared learning, alumni to alumni, and between alumni and current scholars. We want to recognize and celebrate the plurality of perspectives and experiences that exist across our alumni base. And we want to work together with the aspiration that Uncle Mott had in 1945 as leaders who are creating a lasting, positive impact.
And so I hope that some of the investments that we will make in our community in the years ahead as a result of the impacts from the survey will really help move that forward. One of those investments is an expansion of the team. I’m really excited to add Jesse Soloff to our team this year. He’s a member of the class of 2008. He is a tremendous community weaver and will be joining us as vice president of community this coming January.
That’s very exciting news, and I’m excited to meet him. One of the things that I have always been most impressed by is something you described, which is the affinity and the engagement from alumni. So, for those listening, what are actionable ways they can get involved in the community based on recommendations from the survey?
Well, I would be remiss not to mention that today, as we are recording, this is the Day of Giving. And one way in which alumni support the Program that is profoundly inspiring is through investing in future leaders. We’ve been able to expand the program as a result of annual giving from alumni in ways that are really exciting. But alumni have said to us that they would like to give and get involved in other ways.
And so, here are some ways in which you can get involved. First, I hope that we will create with this investment in our community function more vibrant subcommunities locally, across the state, across the country, and across the world, that can support the recruitment and onboarding of new scholars but that also can welcome young alumni when they settle in your city to help them get to know folks, learn where they might find things, feel that they’re part of a community that’s bigger than themselves. I also hope that you will be invited to participate in the selection process and that at different phases of that process, every alum can expect to be invited to participate in some way and can choose to do that. Finally, I hope that you will see new invitations to opportunities to engage directly with scholars themselves. We would like to create more opportunities for structured communication, and structured correspondence for mentorship between alumni and scholars about both career paths, but also, importantly, to foster reflection on how we’re making the most of college. The reality is that when a scholar like you, Benny, comes and sits down with one of our staff, they disproportionately sit with someone who’s built their career in education. Our alumni have built their careers in a wide range of fields, and I think when you sit down and leverage the collective wisdom of all of those different fields and experiences, you might be able to create an even more transformational experience of college for yourself.
Another way that students and alumni alike have come together to learn and grow is through Food for Thought, a breakfast and conversation series launched in Fall 2022, and even in Dialogue and Discourse, a year-long program launched just this past fall for a cohort of 25 junior and senior scholars. Both center on productive discourse. Can you share about the strategy of incorporating these two initiatives?
Sure, and thank you for asking about this. I think this is a really important question for us to be asking as we consider Morehead-Cain as a model of college as it should be. One of the concerns that I have as someone who’s reentered a college campus and reentered America in 2021, is whether young people on college campuses today are able to engage in productive dialogue, whether they are able to disagree without being disagreeable. And I think that you have grown up in a social media era that has prized and celebrated stark black and white perspectives on things when the world is foundationally complex, and many things exist in shades of gray that are only discovered through really meaningful discourse.
I also want to celebrate, in the realm of Food for Thought, the work of a group of four now juniors, Tucker Stillman, Nigel Parker, Kate Quadland, and Kendall Lee. The four of them, who were part of Team Cleveland Civic Collaboration, had the opportunity, through our alumnus, Frank Sullivan, to attend a City Club of Cleveland Friday Forum, a lunchtime conversation with a leader, in which phones were off, and people were to ask any question consistent with the norms and an expectation of positive intent. And they sought to come and bring the same back here to Chapel Hill. And we have had the most extraordinary roster of leaders from across this country who have been able to spend a breakfast with us, share a perspective on a critical issue of our time, and take and respond to really important questions. I know that this podcast, Catalyze, has featured several of those speakers over the course of the last few months, and I encourage alumni to listen to them for a sense of what Food for Thought sounds like, whether it’s a conversation with Skip Griffin, who as a child was a plaintiff in a Virginia school desegregation lawsuit, or a conversation with Cindy Parlow Cone, the legendary soccer player who’s the president of U.S. Soccer and who spoke about the striving for equal pay for women’s athletes. And I think conversations like this have been fantastic.
But the reality is that dialogue is both about making the space but also learning how to create the space. And we need to foster leaders who are able to create spaces in which others can disagree productively and who are able to withhold their own judgments as they consider different perspectives on an issue. And our engagement with Skip and his partner, Bill Isaacs, who are out of Boston with a firm called Dialogos, allowed us to create this Dialogue and Discourse experience for junior and senior scholars, and I’m hopeful that they’re having an excellent experience. They’re soon to reach the midpoint of it. I know it has been challenging, but I look forward to seeing what they learn when this comes to its conclusion. It’s monthly sessions with three weekend experiences that will come to their conclusion in March, and when that happens, it will be great to see what those scholars have learned, and how it might influence future programming here at Morehead-Cain, but also feedback meaningful ideas to the new school that’s being created for civic life and leadership, or programs like the Agora Fellows here at UNC. It’s important that we are in dialogue with the university and its important initiatives on this front.
I couldn’t agree more with the importance of being able to have those difficult conversations, and you mentioned civic collaboration. My Minneapolis group had some of the most profound conversations. We pushed each other, but we were able to learn from each other. And when I saw the Dialogue and Discourse Initiative, I wish I was able to participate in it because I know how important and wonderful those conversations can be and should be.
Well, we look forward to seeing you, Benny, at the Food for Thought series from January to March this year. It looks like it’s going to be amazing.
Awesome. Transitioning now to the spring of 2023, we launched the Impact Educators Initiative. What was the thinking behind this initiative, and what were some of the takeaways from its first iteration?
I spoke earlier in this conversation about how, eighteen months ago, we thought about some different strategic questions in front of the Program. One of them is that we know that nomination of prospective scholars is really important. But we also see that in public schools in North Carolina and across the United States, college counseling is eroding as a profession. There are initiatives like the Carolina Advising Corps, for example, that are designed to supplement schools with college counselors because those are no longer positions that many schools can afford. Those are often the people who are historically doing the nominations for or helping students find information about a program like Morehead-Cain. We also see that in these communities, there are teachers who are extraordinarily driven, who are fixtures of their community, creators of community in these schools, and who transform the lives of students every day. It struck us that it only makes sense to celebrate these teachers and their impact and build a roster of educators across this state and country who know about Morehead-Cain and can help bring our attention to extraordinary candidates for the Scholarship.
So this year, we asked every semifinalist for the Morehead-Cain Scholarship in the class of 2027 to tell us the name of a teacher who had shaped their life. Benny, 372 educators across the state, nation, and world were celebrated by our semifinalists. We sent every one of those educators who were in high schools across the world a certificate. We sent them a sticker, we sent them a letter of gratitude, and we copied that letter to their school principal and their school superintendent. And I was so thrilled to watch as teachers put those certificates up in their classrooms, change their email signatures to reflect that they were impact educators by Morehead-Cain, or the superintendents of school districts who would write back expressing the gratitude for the way in which we had celebrated someone who they could see the impact of every single day. We offered the opportunity in North Carolina for North Carolina public school educators to apply for Impact Educator grants. These are grants that were funded by the Morehead-Cain Scholarship Fund and giving by our scholars and alumni. And they offered teachers the opportunity to explore something professionally meaningful over the course of the summer that could impact the way in which they invested in young leaders in the future. We were able to fund 26 grants of between about $1000 and $2500 each that are just like our Lovelace Fund grants. And we watched teachers do amazing things, from attending the National Student Journalism Conference to studying the history of civil rights in the South and taking a pilgrimage from Selma to Montgomery and ultimately on to Memphis, Tennessee. And these are things that I know will impact the teaching that happens in those schools for a long period of time. I believe that they have added to those teachers’ joy in their very important profession. And I also hope that they help these teachers and all of our impact educators understand what Morehead-Cain is about, understand the types of experiences that our scholars have, and help direct extraordinary young leaders that they meet to Morehead-Cain and to the University of North Carolina in general.
There have been many new things we’ve discussed. In addition, we had our first Faculty Appreciation Luncheon. We’ve had the Alumni Forum, which we mentioned. We’ve relaunched regional events in 15 cities, a tremendous rate of alumni participation. And the 60 new scholars in the class of 2027. Looking ahead with all of this in mind, what do you see as important objectives for Morehead-Cain in 2024?
Benny, it was great to hear you say those things because I realize we’ve accomplished a lot over the past year, and we would only be able to do it with an extraordinary staff, as I think all of our scholars and alumni know. And just tremendous commitment from this intergenerational community of Morehead-Cains across the world. And before we talk about 2024, I just want to reflect on 2023 and say a giant thank you to everyone in this community for the way in which you have made new impact possible and will continue to make new impact possible.
I also want to note that 2024 is going to be a season of celebration of someone who will be spending her 40th year at Morehead-Cain prior to her retirement in January of 2025. And that is none other than the incomparable Megan Mazzocchi. And I think it’s really important that we find opportunities throughout this year to celebrate Megan and also to learn from her and hear her stories of the past 40 years of the Morehead Scholarship and the Morehead-Cain Foundation. She is a fountain of knowledge and wisdom. If you haven’t spent time with her as a scholar, I hope you will. If other scholars have not spent time with Megan, I hope they will. And I really look forward to learning from Megan. I’ll put a plug here: I hope that we’ll create a podcast series with Megan, sharing memories from the past 40 years. I think that would be amazing. And I look forward to making sure that Megan has a send off experience this year that celebrates the foundation that she helped lay from which we will build the future. What she has done at Morehead-Cain is extraordinary, and I’m so grateful for the chance to work with and learn from her every day.
With Megan’s retirement and our continued new initiatives, it’s important that we stay learning. It will also be important that we continue to build and organize a team. Morehead-Cain is growing, and I think we need to organize our team around these core competencies that we have. Identifying extraordinary talent, empowering that talent through a “college as it should be” experience, and connecting that community. And so, I look forward to adding some new folks to our team and to organizing the team in that way as we continue to drive new initiatives forward.
We have some important physical plant things that we need to do. As you know, one of the concerns that we have had is making sure that we are a model for this University and accessibility. In January, hopefully, by the time this podcast is released, there will be a new lift that will allow our scholars who require wheelchairs for mobility to seamlessly move through the building for different meetings and experiences and will show what is possible from an accessibility perspective at this University more broadly.
And a year ago when I did this podcast, I remember talking about how we can continue to deepen our nominator network and continue to invest in rural scholars. We have had a long history at Morehead-Cain of identifying talent across the breadth of the 100 counties in North Carolina. I think it’s important, as the gaps in experience between the state’s wealthiest high schools and least resourced high schools continue to grow, I think it’s really important that we double down on a nominator and recruitment network that will help the most promising young leaders in the rural areas of the state access our application pipeline. I think our team, Tim Cheney, Ann Smith, and Sophia Gutierrez, in our Selections team have done an amazing job of reaching out to and building relationships with rural schools. That’s something that needs to continue.
And finally, I look forward to working with everyone who’s listening to making the most of the Morehead-Cain Network. I’m excited to see what the community team now formed with the backbone of the survey that we completed last year to take the work of the Morehead-Cain community to the next level and create new opportunities for alumni to learn together and for alumni to influence scholars. One of those opportunities coming up this April will be a civil rights tour of the South that I look forward to watching a range of our alumni participate in together and learn from together and to integrating some of the things that they learn into our work as we continue to shape and build the future.
I hear the excitement, the optimism you have for the future, and I also hear you echo the Foundation’s three competencies, which are to identify, empower, and connect. And I’m excited to see how that happens throughout 2024. Chris, thank you so much.
Thank you, Benny.