CJ Powell ’12 first discovered that he had a talent for helping aspiring college students when he worked as a student ambassador at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions. While leading campus tours for high school students, he never tried to “sell” Carolina. Instead, he gave an honest assessment of his experiences so that visitors could think about how and why Carolina might be the right fit for them.
“I would tell them the reasons why UNC was fantastic for me, but I would also tell them that it was not perfect for everybody,” Powell said. “If you wanted to be in a big city or had certain types of interests, then maybe UNC wasn’t perfect. I would be upfront, and I enjoyed those conversations with families.”
Fast forward a decade, and Powell is now in Washington, D.C., working in the Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education. Based on Powell’s admissions office work, it might seem that the progression to his current job, where he works to expand access to higher education, was straightforward. The reality, though, is that a series of experiences at Carolina helped Powell discover and prepare for his current career path, one that aligns with his passion for helping students continue their education after high school.
In his early days as an undergraduate, Powell was intent on going to law school. But during a spring break retreat led by the UNC Office of Student Life and Leadership, he created a personal mission statement and kept gravitating to his work at the admissions office. In fact, he realized much of his extracurricular work was devoted to helping other students. He was also a summer orientation leader and a resident advisor at Koury and Mangum residence halls.
“So what I ended up writing was that I wanted to remove barriers to college education for Black people,” Powell said. “I wanted to make sure that people of color and Black people had the opportunity to pursue higher education just as I was fortunate enough to have.”
As graduation neared, Powell began thinking about how this mission might translate into a career and his supervisor at the admissions office encouraged him to apply to be an adviser in the Carolina College Advising Corps. CCAC is a program to help low-income, first-generation and under-represented students apply to and enroll in college by placing recent Carolina graduates as college advisers in selected public high schools throughout the state.
“CCAC is an opportunity for the high school students we serve, but it is also an opportunity for the advisers we hire right out of Carolina,” said Ni-Eric Perkins, CCAC Associate Director and Interim Program Director. “We see them go on to successful careers in public service and education, and CCAC is the starting point. CJ is a great example of that.”
As a CCAC adviser, Powell was placed in rural Halifax County. Though Powell went to high school in Charlotte, he found he had a lot in common with the students at the majority Black schools he served. He would attend birthday parties and baptisms, and he would counsel students on challenges in their lives outside of school.
“That maybe wasn’t part of the technical job description, but it was part of the spirit of the advising corps,” Powell said. “You really do become a part of the community and part of these students’ lives. You are a trusted resource, a trusted person to go to for support, or for information on things related to college and beyond.”
Of course, his focus remained on serving as a conduit to educational opportunities following high school. For Powell, sometimes that meant helping a student realize she really was college material, as smart and capable as any of her peers for whom applying to college was a given. Sometimes that meant helping a student find financial resources and complete paperwork to help make college more affordable.
One such student was Trequan McGee, who attended Northwest Halifax High School. Powell helped McGee find and apply for several scholarships and grants that fully funded his undergraduate education at North Carolina A&T University. Now McGee is pursuing a Ph.D. in horticulture at the University of Florida and plans to become a professor and research the effects of climate change on fruit production.
“CJ was really open and helpful,” McGee said. “My friends and I would go by his office and he seemed as much like a friend as a teacher. He made sure that we had everything we needed to be focused on our future.”
Following two years with CCAC, Powell earned a master’s degree in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and was the first director of college preparation at a high school in Nashville, Tennessee. He then worked at nonprofit and civil rights organizations in Washington, D.C., focusing on higher education policy and reducing barriers to applying for college. It was in late 2020 that he got an out-of-the-blue email from the Biden-Harris Administration transition team requesting an interview for an opening as a special assistant on higher education issues at the Department of Education.
His strategy in the interview echoed his approach from back when he was guiding tours at Carolina. Rather than telling the interview team what he thought they wanted to hear, he shared his truthful and unvarnished point-of-view.
“I gave them every reason not to hire me,” Powell said. “I told them that with higher education, I care about the pregnant or parenting student, I care about the part-time student. I told them, ‘I don’t know if y’all are going to like me continuously bringing these people up because it complicates the narrative and it complicates policy.’”
Powell hung up the phone and thought that would be the end of it, but a few days later the transition team was back in touch: The job was his.
With several months at the Department of Education now under his belt, Powell often finds himself recalling his experiences as a CCAC adviser. When researching policy and considering its implications, many of Powell’s colleagues tend to take an analytical approach while Powell contributes his firsthand experiences serving students and families.
“A lot of people bring data, and that is really important,” Powell said. “I bring my stories. I bring the story of Trequan and stories about the possibilities of higher education. There is a lot that goes into getting someone to feel like they can achieve their educational aspirations, and I think those stories really matter.”