The FORevHER Tar Heels Campaign Will Benefit the Present and the Future

by Pat James

As a freshman on the North Carolina swimming team in 1980, Sue Walsh remembers sitting in Parker Residence Hall, thinking about all the female student-athletes who had come before her, many of whom had just recently been awarded scholarships.

She realized then that she wanted to make them proud, both with her performance in the pool and in the classroom. Thirty-nine years later, she’s still striving to do that and to also improve the experience of current female student-athletes as the Associate Executive Director of Scholarship and Legacy Gifts for The Rams Club.

“It’s amazing how much I love this place,” she said, “and how much I want to see it succeed and to really put in place the resources that, for the student-athletes of today and those that come here in the future, make their experience not only just as good, but even better than what I had.

“It’s what we all want for our children, if you have them. You want them to have an even better situation than what you had. That’s just your opportunity to pay it forward to the next generation.”

With that in mind, Walsh and other members of The Rams Club staff set about planning this latest initiative a little more than a year ago. Now, it’s officially underway.

FORevHER Tar Heels is a $100 million campaign that launched in October, championing UNC female student-athletes. Organizers hope it will draw more attention to Carolina’s women’s programs, which have won 35 of the University’s 50 team national championships. But just as, if not more, importantly, it will help current female student-athletes long after their playing careers.

“It really is about setting these girls up for forever, for the rest of their lives and for the next generation,” said Vanessa Wittman, a member of the women’s tennis team from 1985-89 who, in addition to being the chief financial officer of Glossier, is a member of The Rams Club Executive Board of Directors.

“A lot of what we’re trying to do is to not only make it clear that we are looking beyond the four years of the athletic careers of these girls and into their future as leaders, as business people, at whatever they choose to do, but to repeat the cycle and make sure they’re looking out for the next generation and the one after that.”

Only so many people can explain the meaning of that as well as Walsh and Wittman, who said their experiences as Tar Heel student-athletes continue to benefit them.

The youngest of five siblings, Walsh said she hadn’t explored much outside of her hometown of Hamburg, N.Y., before coming to Chapel Hill. Partly because of that, she didn’t have much confidence. But being on the swimming team helped her gain plenty. It also taught her that her goal should always be to further the mission of whatever group she’s working with and to not focus on the attention she might receive for her work.

As for Wittman, she said her responsibilities as a student and an athlete taught her how to juggle priorities. They also showed her the importance of being well-prepared. And just like you do in sports, you win and lose in the business world, so the thick skin that she developed as a student-athlete has helped her handle any adversity she’s faced or tough feedback she’s received.

That’s just a small sampling of how being at UNC contributed to their growth.

“The lessons that are learned, the discipline, the confidence, teamwork, how to manage adversity, all of those things really are so valuable,” Walsh said, “and I think even more so for women because we haven’t traditionally found our place in a lot of industries. Having those skills really gives us an advantage as we move out into the workplace.”

Through FORevHER Tar Heels, Walsh said an emphasis will be placed on continuing to educate donors about the impact that athletics has on Carolina’s female student-athletes. Perhaps people who have long supported women’s teams will even consider how else they can help.

“There are so many people who, for example, purchase women’s basketball season tickets,” Walsh said. “We’ve never really had conversations with them about giving in other ways. We certainly need them to be there in the arena and supporting the women who are on the women’s basketball team, but hopefully there are opportunities for them to get even more engaged.”

As valuable as any financial contributions will be, the campaign’s other priority is to provide mentorship and career networking opportunities.

Walsh said a networking event for all UNC female student-athletes is being planned. The hope is that not only will former male and female student-athletes be brought back for it, but that alumni who didn’t even participate in a sport at Carolina will also be compelled to participate. There are also hopes, Walsh said, of funding a platform for current and former student-athletes that’s similar to LinkedIn.

Many former female student-athletes may be motivated to help the student-athletes who are members of the program they were once a part of. That’s certainly fine. But Walsh is also encouraging them to assist student-athletes on other teams.

“Maybe a gymnast wants to go into finance – and I’m making up careers here – so they’ll reach out to a former women’s lacrosse player. …” she said. “Maybe somebody has an internship they can offer. Or maybe someone just wants to meet for coffee and talk about going to medical school. They’ll be able to manage that data by sport (on a new platform), but it can also cross over all sports.”

With Walsh as the point person for FORevHER Tar Heels along with Assistant Development Director Lea Zagorin, a group of honorary chairwomen has been assembled. Wittman is one. Another is Anne Cates, who held several “first female” titles in noteworthy leadership positions at UNC; none might be more notable than the first and only female chairperson of the Board of Trustees.

The other three chairwoman spots are held by a few of the most accomplished student-athletes in school history: two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time FIFA World Cup champion Mia Hamm, four-time Olympian and 2017 New York City Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan, and former gymnast Courtney Bumpers, a two-time NCAA champion in the floor exercise.

The initiative officially launched on October 5. One renowned former student-athlete who spoke was Kristine Lilly, who starred on the U.S. women’s national soccer team for 24 years and is the world record holder for the most number of international appearances with 354 caps.

Lilly shared her story and talked about how she grew just as much away from the field as she did on it during her time in Chapel Hill.

“The people I surrounded myself with who were helping me be a better student and soccer player helped me also be a better person,” Lilly said. “So, all these things encompass so many wonderful things that I think this FORevHER Tar Heel campaign will share. That’s great for the younger generation who are there to hear these stories and listen to these people who have been through it and to discuss the impact that the University has had on them.”

In conducting research for the campaign, Walsh said she learned of former Carolina female student-athletes who have gone on to be doctors and police officers. When talking about a few of the other career avenues some have taken, she also referenced Shinann Featherston, a former tennis player who is now a legal coordinator for MLB.

Walsh said she’s always impressed when she considers what these women are doing. At the same time, she wonders what Carolina’s current female student-athletes might be capable of if given that much more than their predecessors.

FORevHER Tar Heels marks a significant step toward finding out.

“It’s something that we hope is long lasting and not just something we’re going to focus on during the current university campaign,” Walsh said. “I truly do feel that athletics can put our women on a very positive trajectory for life. I’ve seen it in my two daughters, one of whom participated on the Carolina swim team her freshman year. They’ve both been involved in sports pretty much their whole lives, and I see how confident they are and how successful they are.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the excitement that other people have for this. Just like the title FORevHER Tar Heels says, this initiative is about providing opportunities ‘for her.’ It’s very obvious what this is about and it’s also obvious that we want it to be something that’s a long-term focus. I’m just very, very thankful to be a part of this process, and look forward to seeing how it’s going to impact our student-athletes who are here now and those who come after.”