Take yourself out of the green hills of the North Carolina piedmont and into the isolated, daunting boulder fields of wild Alaska.  Enormous rocks are between you and your destination: the campsite up and over the hill.  A freezing rain numbs your body and makes every climbing step that much more dangerous.  Would you be able to step up to the challenge?

Seventeen incoming freshmen at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte were faced with this scene this summer.  They weren’t expert hikers or campers – just scholars with a great opportunity.  The relatively new Levine Scholars Program at UNCC provides extraordinary graduating high school students a full scholarship that includes a summer course with the National Outdoor Leadership School.  This year’s students traveled to Alaska to hike and camp for 23 days in the remote wilderness.

Among those traveling were Dr. Mike Richardson, physician at Carolinas Medial Center in Mint Hill, director of the Leon Levine Foundation, and contributor to the Mint Hill Times, and two local students, Jackie Chan and Isabel Fee.

Leon Levine Foundation

Leon Levine is a North Carolina native and the founder of Family Dollar.  He has recently retired and dedicated his time to the Leon Levine Foundation, created in 1980.  The foundation focuses on four main areas: healthcare, education, Jewish values, and human services.

The Levine name is found throughout the Charlotte area: Levine Cancer Institute,

Levine Children’s Hospital, Levine Center for Wellness and Recreation at Queens University, Central Piedmont Community College Levine Campus, Levine Jewish Community Center, Levine Center for the Arts, Levine Museum of the New South.

UNCC Levine Scholars Program

Five years ago Richardson and Levine were talking about building a scholarship program for a Charlotte school.  Richardson was a Morehead Scholar at UNC Chapel Hill, and through that program he had the opportunity to hike through Wyoming in a NOLS course.  Levine wanted to offer a prestigious scholarship similar to Richardson’s experience.  They approached UNC Charlotte with their ideas, and the first class of Levine Scholars began their academic careers in the fall of 2010.

The Levine Scholarship is a full scholarship covering tuition, fees, and housing.  It also includes extra programs.  Entering freshmen attend the NOLS course.  The first class hiked in Wyoming, and the next two classes have traveled through Alaska.  The second summer focuses on non-profit work in Charlotte.  Students not only dedicate time and energy to a non-profit, they also learn how a non-profit organization functions.  They meet the board of directors, learn the financial side, and look for needs.  The third summer requires an internship, and the fourth year is a study abroad experience.  Students are also given a grant of up to $8,000 for a non-profit project that they design.

The Levine Scholars Program aims to attract top students with a passion for making a difference to the Charlotte area.  This scholarship draws students to UNC Charlotte when they might have chosen schools like Duke University or Chapel Hill.  Chan and Fee both stated the scholarship was a determining factor in their attendance at UNCC.

Alaskan Adventure

Chan and Fee recently began their first semester of college classes.  Within their first week they’ve faced the challenges of advanced learning and dedication to schoolwork.  Chan is a pre-biology major and a recent graduate from Bulter High School.  She has an interest in cancer research, and has spoke with faculty about exploring that interest within her department.  Fee graduated from Rocky River High School as salutatorian and is an architecture student.  She understands she will basically be living in the studio for four years.

They know they will persevere through the next four years.  If they learned anything during their Alaskan adventure, it was perseverance.  They hiked for 23 days in isolated wilderness with a group of people they had never met before.  They didn’t shower.  They carried 35-45 pounds on their backs. They set up and disassembled camp every day.

Richardson said it was the coldest and wettest July in Alaska in the last 100 years.  Chan saw her shadow only a couple times, and no one saw true night.  They were so far north that the darkest times were from 1:30-4 am, and even then it was just twilight.  After hiking six miles a day carrying everything to keep them alive, they were still able to sleep without the darkness.

Chan said the most terrifying moment was crossing the boulder field.  Mother Nature creates dangerous terrain.  Not only did the group need to climb the boulders up and across a hill, but the freezing rain created an extra challenge.

“It was really frightening because it’s one of those things where if you stepped on a wrong rock you could roll down the side of a mountain,” she said.  “I thought, ‘I have to keep going.’  I’ve always had that safety net.  Being out there and having no safety net was so scary, but it was also the most rewarding experience.”

Fee enjoyed being able to appreciate the natural setting.  She said each mountain was different and beautiful.  They offered a variety of flowers, animals, and waterways.  They spotted porcupines, moose, hundreds of caribou, and a bald eagle.  The water was crystal clear and delicious.

The students were equipped with various jackets, tents, cooking gear, compasses, and a topographical map.  In all, they hiked 75 miles.  No one starved, froze, or injured themselves.

“My goal was to get through it,” laughed Chan.

The focus of the NOLS trip was leadership.  Every day a student led the group.  Leadership involved mapping routes and setting up camp.  They learned about their leadership styles; relationship builders, those who don’t yield to others.  Richardson said one of the biggest challenges the students may not have recognized was learning to follow when they may have been leaders throughout their lives.  In a group of peers with similar abilities, it’s difficult to let go of control.

Apart from learning leadership skills, the students also learned about themselves.

“It’s one of those things you can say you’ve only done once in your life,” said Chan.  “It taught me a lot about how I deal with frustration.  There were days when I had to push through it.  If I could do that I can do anything.”

“I learned how to deal with emotional stress.  It will help me a lot in college,” said Fee.

The group left Alaska and entered Witherspoon Hall on the UNCC campus.  They will continue to work together and live together, providing support for each other and future Levine Scholars.

“We really had to come together and form a camaraderie,” said Fee.

Richardson, the Leon Levine Foundation, and UNC Charlotte are excited to see the future success of these and future adventurer-scholars.