Robyn Hadley had the world at her fingertips. After her 1981 graduation from Graham High School, she could continue her education virtually anywhere she wanted. Among the schools offering full academic scholarships were Harvard, Duke (whose new men’s basketball coach sent her a hand-written note) and Carolina. Ultimately, she chose to become a Tar Heel. “The Morehead clearly was a major part of coming to Carolina. The opportunity to be a part of the Morehead family and the Carolina family, and then the other real carrot came in being able to walk on to the basketball team,” she says today. “It was close to home and had that opportunity for family and friends to come and see you play and to wear the Carolina uniform. To play at Carmichael and to be a part of that tradition was something you could not ever have imagined.”
Robyn Hadley’s mother in particular encouraged her young daughter to explore all the opportunities that lay in front of her. And whatever she undertook, she must have discipline, Hadley’s mother taught her. “You may hit some valleys along the way, but if you’re disciplined and focused and you’ve got good mentors and coaches, anything is possible.”
Growing up in Graham meant that Hadley had the full support of a small town in all her endeavors. Whether she was playing the piano or the drums, working at Bojangles’ or Graham Sporting Goods, playing basketball or softball or running track (among many other extra-curricular activities), Hadley could look to the stands and see family, friends, neighbors and fellow parishioners. “That’s all so motivating for you to do what you need to do, so you can be successful.”
Hadley’s success prior to Carolina was not guaranteed to continue once she reached Chapel Hill; she had to continue to work. Hadley remembers being required to attend study hall in the fall semester of her freshman year - a study hall overseen by former three-sport standout Charles Waddell. “He humbled me greatly, in the sense of helping me to understand that even though I was a Morehead Scholar, I needed to be in study hall,” she says. “He was very stern.” Waddell’s guidance helped Hadley understand time management in the life of a student-athlete. “To this day, whenever I see Charles Waddell, I thank him for that first semester and helping me get even more disciplined.”
On the basketball court, Hadley’s education continued. She learned the importance of hard work in a place that values and appreciates that hard work. She learned the importance of preparation - even if no one was watching. “It’s those hours that you’re up well before the sun to run at the track, or practice because an event is going on at Carmichael and you can’t get there at your regular practice time,” she says. Playing for Carolina meant she met alumni and fans from across the country who were invested in her and the team. “You wanted to do your best to represent the university,” she says.
She didn’t get to represent the university in a number of her choosing, however. Prior to the start of the 1981-82 season, Hadley went to Woollen Gym to get her team gear. She’d proudly worn #13 in high school - Graham High School retired her number - and planned to continue to do so in Chapel Hill. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a #13. “They said, ‘We don’t have a 13. You’ll have to be take 23.’ And I said, ‘I really, really, want 13.’ And they didn’t have a 13, and so it was evident that I was going to be #23. I remember getting my gear and walking away, saying to myself, ‘Nobody wears 23. Who wears 23?’”
Hadley notes that at about that same time, there was another freshman getting set to represent Carolina in #23. “That’s my funny jersey number story,” she says. “And there’s a #23 on the ladies’ team right now (Diamond DeShields) who’s doing exceptionally well. There must be something to #23.”
After her time at Carolina, Hadley traveled to England’s Oxford University as one of the first African-American females from the South to be awarded the Cecil B. Rhodes Scholarship. There, she had the opportunity to study international business and even captain the basketball club (wearing #13), becoming the first woman to be awarded a Blue (the equivalent of a varsity letter) for athletic competition. One of her teammates at Oxford was Susan Rice, who would go on to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations and is currently the National Security Advisor. Her studies and her basketball allowed Hadley to travel throughout England and into the European continent and Asia.
In 2004, Hadley founded Youth Enrichment Series, Inc. (YESICAN) to help young people prepare for college. She is the author of Within View, Within Reach: Navigating the College-Bound Journey and in 2012 was recognized as a Champion of Change by President Barack Obama. She is the executive director and founder of the “What’s After High School?” program with the Alamance-Burlington school system. Most recently, she was named associate vice chancellor and head of the John B. Ervin Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis.
Throughout her travels, her academic pursuits and career opportunities, Robyn Hadley has not forgotten her Carolina roots. “There’s nothing like wearing a Carolina sweatshirt or some kind of Carolina blue when you are in Moscow or Beijing or somewhere else and people come up to you either because they know about Carolina or they want to know about Carolina,” says Hadley, the current chair of the UNC General Alumni Association board and the first African-American female to serve in that role.
Through her work today, Tar Heel Trailblazer Robyn Hadley is helping open the doors of the world for young people. “My mom, who worked in the school system, just planted in me that this was a big world,” Hadley says. “And every day was a new adventure.”