First Levine Scholars class learned to give back

The idea was hatched waiting for a doctor’s check-up.

Six years ago, Leon Levine sat in a waiting room when he noticed a certificate proclaiming his doctor, Michael Richardson, had been a Morehead Scholar – which paid his undergraduate expenses at UNC Chapel Hill.

Richardson told him the experience had been critical to his success and that got Levine, the philanthropist and Family Dollar founder, thinking how nice it’d be if UNC Charlotte had a similar scholarship program that drew the best and brightest students.

So he and wife Sandra started the Levine Scholars Program, donating $9.3 million over 10 years to develop public service leaders.

Five members of the first class of 13 Levine Scholars graduated Friday from UNCC. The rest will receive their diplomas Saturday.

Collectively, they ended their undergraduate careers with a 3.75 GPA out of 4. They studied in 14 different countries, including Spain, Australia, Iceland, Bolivia and Costa Rica.

They were taught to give back. Each month, they prepared and served meals at The Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte to families struggling with sick children. They’ve left UNCC with a legacy: a 12-hour dance marathon – co-chaired by Levine Scholars Celia Karp and Caitlin Vaverek – that in November raised more than $35,000 for Charlotte’s Levine Children’s Hospital. They mentored students at James Martin Middle School.

One scholar, Jacob Huffman of Charlotte, used a service grant from the scholarship to build an aquaponics system at an urban farm behind Garinger High School. Another, Christina Neitzey of Hampstead in eastern North Carolina, gave abused or neglected children a voice as a guardian ad litem.

Karp spent a summer interning at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will spend the next year researching the high rates of Ecuadorian women dying during their pregnancy.

“It’s been incredible to watch the program grow,” said Karp, who grew up in Bethesda, Md. “It allowed us to get real experiences and do real projects for the community.”

All 13 scholars are “pioneers,” said Diane Zablotsky, director of the Levine Scholars Program.

“They were all high achievers in high school and came to a program that was just being launched and said, ‘I’ll take my chances. I’ll build this with you,’ ” Zablotsky said.

Setting the standard

Most of the scholars were bound for other schools when they heard about a new scholarship at UNC Charlotte that would pay all expenses for four years of study. The scholarship would also include a grant to implement a service project and four summer experiences to transform students into leaders.

Leon Levine, at one time one of the richest men in America, never finished college but has donated much of his family foundation’s assets to education and research.

When the first class of Levine Scholars was announced in 2010, Levine said he hoped the program would help raise the university’s stature. Sandra Levine said their donation was a good investment not just for UNCC, but the Charlotte region.

The program has done both, Chancellor Phil Dubois said.

The first year, 515 high school seniors applied for scholarships, he said. For the upcoming fall semester, 848 applications were received for 16 scholarships.

“When you have a signature program like this it does attract attention,” Dubois said. “These students would have had a lot of opportunities to go to some of the best institutions in the country. But financial aid can have a big impact on a student’s choice. For most, a full-ride is a no-brainer.

“It’s been a very good program for increasing the reputation of the institution.”

Now, there are 59 Levine Scholars on campus. Dubois said UNCC is discussing with the Levines about renewing the program and possibly expanding it.

He and Zablotsky say the first class set the standard.

“There’s always an element of competition among high achievers, but these students created a community of scholars who supported each other,” Zablotsky said.

Charting futures

Neitzey’s experience as a Levine Scholar was similar to the rest of the inaugural class.

She is the daughter of a Marine officer, so she’s moved around much of her life. That taught her adaptability and “how to root myself, and build quick relationships,” she said.

She’s done just that during her four years at UNCC.

Neitzey interned at the Justice Department in Washington, and did policy work for the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund. She was president of the Pre-Law Society at UNCC, winning a leadership award.

And in Charlotte, she’s worked for the Mecklenburg Guardian ad Litem Foundation, advocating for abused or neglected children. Neitzey was assigned to cases and worked with foster children who the court system was considering returning to their parents. She interviewed their social workers, doctors, foster parents and teachers.

“My role was to get to know these children – their needs, their wishes, their dreams – and prepare a report for the court,” she said. “A lot of times they don’t know they have a voice. I was their voice.”

She’d started as a psychology major, but added a criminal justice degree along the way.

Next stop: law school. She’s been admitted to Columbia Law School and is on the wait-list at Harvard and Stanford law schools.

“The (Levine) program has been instrumental in charting my future,” Neitzey said. “It’s opened doors that wouldn’t have opened if I’d gone somewhere else.”

Doors opened for Karp, too.

She was headed for UCLA or the University of Southern California, until her high school guidance counselor nominated her for a new scholarship at UNC Charlotte.

Karp had heard of Charlotte, but not the school. She got the scholarship and arrived on campus intending to major in communications. By the end of her freshman year, she added a second major: public health.

Now she’ll put both to use on a Fulbright scholarship in Quito, Ecuador. There she’ll study how health communication influences women’s perspectives on sexual and reproductive health – and their use of maternal health programs.

After that she’ll pursue a master’s and doctorate in public health.

“I feel very fortunate to have had so many opportunities through the (Levine) program,” Karp said. “Because of my internship at the CDC, I developed a passion for public health. I wouldn’t have discovered that passion had I gone somewhere else.”

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