Ana Zurita Posas ’24 grew up in Bladen County, a rural area in southeastern North Carolina.
“At first glance, Bladen County was quiet and isolated compared to nearby Fayetteville and Wilmington. However, as I grew up, I constantly recognized one of its strongest features: community,” said Zurita Posas.
“When Hurricane Florence hit Bladen County with huge gusts of wind and tremendous amounts of water, it was the community of families, students, small business owners and local politicians that inspired unified rebuilding.”
Bladen County is one of many rural, tobacco-dependent areas in the state of North Carolina: often rural communities struggle to improve economic vitality and have a lower rate of secondary degrees than urban areas. Rural North Carolinians make up 46% of the state’s population but only 38% of UNC System undergraduates.
State funds from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies are stimulating rural economies and helping rural students complete degrees of their choice.
The Golden LEAF Foundation, established by the State Legislature of North Carolina, administers a portion of the settlement money by sending it back into rural communities. The foundation aims to increase economic opportunity for the state’s rural and economically distressed communities through a variety of grantmaking – including scholarships.
In 2020, Zurita Posas was awarded the Golden LEAF Scholarship to attend UNC-Chapel Hill. This four-year scholarship aids students from qualifying rural and economically distressed counties of North Carolina who will attend a participating North Carolina institution of higher learning.
The Golden LEAF Scholarship aims to help talented young students from rural areas gain knowledge and skills that they can take back to their communities. Scholars who receive the Golden LEAF Scholarship get more than just financial support; they receive access to paid rural internships.
“The Golden LEAF Scholarship has inspired me to return to rural southeastern North Carolina in order to enhance mental health education and resources for children and families,” said Zurita Posas who is studying both Geography and Human Development and Family Science.
Golden LEAF Scholars, university officials, and representatives from the Golden LEAF Foundation networked at a luncheon on campus in February 2023. Scott Hamilton, the president and chief executive officer of the Golden LEAF Foundation, and Kevin M. Guskiewicz, chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, were in attendance.
“The Golden LEAF Scholarship Program is a component of Golden LEAF’s strategy to help rural communities thrive by creating a future generation of skilled, educated workers to come back home to live, work, and raise families,” said Golden LEAF President, Chief Executive Officer Scott T. Hamilton. “We see this investment in students as a critical component to the continued success of rural North Carolina.”
“We believe that every student who gets into our university deserves the chance to come here regardless of their financial background,” Guskiewicz said at the event. “The Golden LEAF Foundation shares that passion with us. Carolina now has 109 Golden LEAF Scholars representing rural counties from across our state of North Carolina. Each one of our scholars are here to discover their career path and to be part of our community.”