by Rob Holliday, UNC News Services
CHAPEL HILL—On a Sunday in December more than a decade ago, Jerry Stackhouse walked out of the Smith Center without attempting as much as a layup. He couldn't have been more proud. With his '42' jersey hanging in the rafters above him, Stackhouse put on one of his signature performances - this time wearing a Carolina blue cap and gown. He was a college graduate.
"That's one of the accomplishments I'm most proud of," Stackhouse said recently. "My parents didn't go to college. My mom completed the 10th grade and my father probably got through the eighth grade, so it was really important that I was able to do something they were never able to do."
He wants others like him to be able to do it, too. After leading the Tar Heels to the 1995 Final Four as a sophomore, entering the NBA draft early to become the No. 3 overall draft pick and playing professionally for 18 seasons, Stackhouse is back in Chapel Hill more often, and he is lending his voice to something he believes in deeply: expanding access to a college degree.
One of the University's growing programs that has drawn his attention in particular is the Carolina College Advising Corps.
"The thing that piques my interest about the Carolina College Advising Corps is just the fact that it's helping these kids that otherwise probably wouldn't have a chance," Stackhouse said.
By placing recent Carolina graduates in high schools across North Carolina to serve as college advisers, the Carolina College Advising Corps has helped improve the college-going rate in dozens of communities by as much as 10 percent. Corps advisers help students navigate the college application process - everything from writing essays to applying for financial aid - with a special focus on talented low-income students whose parents did not attend college. Those students are like Stackhouse, who spent his first NBA summers back in Chapel Hill's classrooms and fulfilled the promise he made to his mother and coach Dean Smith to graduate. He made good on the pact in December 1999 .
"I was the free and reduced lunch student that this program is targeting," Stackhouse said. "There are so many students that I grew up with, my friends, my peers, that just didn't have the opportunity, and I think being able to have an [advising] corps like what's established now would have done wonders for them."
That's why, as he spoke to a classroom of students at Durham's Hillside High School recently, Stackhouse mentioned his playing days, but talked mostly about his other major accomplishment. He said he is passionate about seeing students follow his off-the-court dream, succeeding in the classroom in ways their families never could. And he's excited to support the Carolina College Advising Corps.
"There's a big world out there, and that's what this does, it sends that message to these kids to think big and dream big," Stackhouse said. "That message of getting to these kids, and letting them know there's something else out there besides what's going on in your hometown or your community."
Even though he's now retired from playing basketball, Stackhouse remains close to the game he loves. He's a television analyst during NBA broadcasts and is involved with the NBA Players Union. When he thinks about his top aspirations, Chapel Hill comes to mind immediately.
"Eventually, I'd love to coach," Stackhouse said. "I think my dream job would be to one day come back to North Carolina and coach the Tar Heels ."
The transition into retirement can be difficult for many professional athletes, but Stackhouse believes this new life phase will be easier thanks to the work he did in the classroom more than 15 years ago. And because of that moment in the Smith Center that was more important than any steal, free throw or dunk.
"You can't get a coaching job without a degree," Stackhouse said. "Now that I'm out of the game, and I'm transitioning into the real world, the business world, my degree is becoming more and more important to me."
The Carolina College Advising Corps helps low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students find their way to colleges that will serve them well. By providing well-trained, enthusiastic advisers who are close in age and circumstance to the students they serve, the program aims to increase college-going rates at partner high schools across North Carolina. For the 2013-2014 academic year, 31 advisors are serving 51 schools across the state.