Sierra Atwater is a senior at UNC. She’s local, from Pittsboro. Like other students, she’s graduating on Sunday with a bachelor of science in biology and a chemistry minor. But unlike many other students, she’s graduating with a cohort of carefully chosen students, called Chancellor’s Science Scholars or CSS.

She began the program during the summer before her first year at Carolina with a boot camp to get CSS acclimated to college life, called Summer Bridge.

“We came to Summer Bridge and most of us thought it was going to be like, ‘Wow we get to start college early,'” Atwater said. “And we get there and the first thing they do is take our phones and we’re like, ‘Wow. This is going to be interesting.’ So, Summer Bridge ended up being pretty rough right after it ended, but in the long run we definitely saw how it helped us become bonded and get firm study habits.”

The program is designed after a similar one at University of Maryland at Baltimore County. Its purpose is to increase the number of underrepresented students who complete undergrad and go on to complete PhD and MD-PhD programs.

Atwater said the program came with support system over her four years at school. There are monthly meetings with a program coordinator, and meetings with the rest of the scholars.

“We may not see each other super often, but when we do see each other, it’s like seeing family that you haven’t seen in a little while,” she said. “So we instantly connect, and are instantly able to talk about what’s going on in our lives, and celebrate together and things like that so it’s been amazing.”

Aside from being supportive in school, the program also encourages its students to engage in research opportunities: everything from studying erosion on North Carolina’s coast to studying what causes oral cancer in the UNC School of Dentistry.

Atwater said the program’s team of advisers and coordinators also help students find the right post-grad school, program or fellowship.

“Two of us graduated early last semester, and one has already started her program,” she said. “The other two will start their programs in the fall, we have some that are going straight into graduate school, or medical school or MD-PhD programs. And then, there are a few of us who are taking the year off who have been able to bounce ideas about gap year programs like research programs together so it’s just awesome to have someone in different phases depending on what you’re doing.”

Atwater said she never would have guessed CSS would make up such a large part of her college career. But she said after checking a little box that said she’d be interested in being considered for the program in her application to the school four years ago, she knows she made the right choice as graduation is around the corner.

“I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “But it’s also sad just to know that I’m leaving all of these people but just to see that hard work pays off when we’re all sitting in our caps and gowns at Kenan Stadium and the alma mater’s sung for the last time and whatnot. Seeing that—seeing my family and my friends and having everybody together to celebrate this moment—I’m excited.”

Click here for more information on the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program.

Click here for information on UNC’s Spring Commencement.