Dr. Joan Barber, left, retired Vice Chancellor for Student Life at NCSSM, and Alan Cline ’90 and his wife, Michelle.
For years before she retired, NCSSM faculty emerita Dr. Joan Barber performed near acts of magic. As Vice Chancellor for Student Life at the school, she regularly pulled together hard-won corporate and foundation grants with money from the margins of NCSSM’s yearly budget to launch and run highly successful summer programs for underrepresented and underserved minority students.
But more than magic was needed. Unpredictable fluctuations in state budgets year to year unfairly dictated what the school’s leadership could promise. Philanthropic trends driving corporate and foundation funding were just as uncertain. What Barber dreamed of most was a patron.
Barber’s dream has just come true — and in the most unexpected of ways.
Alan Cline ’90, and his wife, Michelle, have made a transformative donation to the school establishing the Barber Fund for Underrepresented Minorities for STEM Leadership. The fund provides direct support of NCSSM’s Summer Leadership and Research program, which Barber created in 2008 to help incoming minority students better prepare themselves for the rigors of life at NCSSM; and Step Up to STEM, a program Barber created in 2013 that brings rising ninth-grade underrepresented minority students from throughout the state onto the NCSSM campus for an in-depth exploration of the opportunities available in STEM fields. Combined, the programs have served more than 900 students.
The gift honoring Barber’s tremendous contributions to the school over 28 years of service as a science teacher, Associate and Assistant Principal, and NCSSM’s Vice Chancellor for Student Life, is the largest ever from an individual or family directed to underrepresented minority (URM) programming at the school.
Plans are now underway to leverage the Clines’s gift to further expand philanthropic support of URM programs at NCSSM, establish program partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities, and significantly increase the reach of the programs statewide.
A long time coming
The origin of the fund’s name goes back more than 30 years to a disciplinary hearing in Barber’s office when Alan Cline was a senior.
A momentary lapse of judgment had led one of Cline’s friends to stray outside of NCSSM’s lines. She was in trouble, and she needed his help. Cline agreed to appear on her behalf before Barber as a character witness. Though known far more for her encouragement than admonishments, Barber’s position as the top official in student life at NCSSM imbued her with near-ultimate authority in student discipline. She was obligated to wield that authority in defense of the school’s integrity.
Cline worried for his friend. At NCSSM, breaches of trust are serious matters; a testimonial from a classmate was just a small part of the proceedings. When asked to speak, Cline offered a few brief words of support, then quickly stepped back out of the way as the hearing continued.
His friend was spared the worst.
For Barber, the hearing has faded into the blur of thousands of administrative matters she resolved.
But for Cline, the merciful judgement resonated. It’s still resonating today.
“That’s one of those moments that sticks with me,” he says. “It would have been very easy for Dr. Barber to have been, you know, way too tough on my friend, or way too lenient. But I felt like she was super fair. I was like, ‘Okay, she really cares about the students and their growth as young adults.’”
Dr. Joan Barber, left, from the 1989 NCSSM yearbook, and Alan Cline ’90.
“Well my goodness! Alan who?”
Outside of the hearing and occasional interactions through Cline’s involvement in student council, he and Barber hardly knew each other. Even in the years since, the two have spoken only infrequently, mostly engaging in casual, lighthearted conversations once every five years at class reunions.
Though his defense of his friend may have influenced Barber in that moment, Cline doubts he otherwise left much of an impression on her at all. “She may not even remember me,” he says of the woman he chose to honor.
He isn’t entirely wrong.
“I was like, ‘Well my goodness! Alan who?’” Barber recalls thinking when word of Cline’s gift reached her. She admits to pulling an NCSSM yearbook from her bookshelf to refresh her memory, but worries she might offend. “Don’t you say I didn’t remember him well,” she says initially. “I remember him now, but I remember him as being a roommate or something like that [of someone else she recalls more vividly]. Isn’t that terrible? But he must have been a really good kid.”
He was an indistinguishable kid from a middle-class family in Charlotte, Cline says, with the good fortune of being enrolled in a well-funded public school system that provided him access to resources not always found elsewhere. He did well enough in school early on, but didn’t stand out in any particular way. Not until the eighth grade.
It was innocuous enough at the time; a standardized math test among many others. But he performed so well on it that it drew the attention of his teachers. “It seemed like afterward the teachers treated me differently,” he says. “It’s like they were like, ‘Oh, this B-minus student might actually be really good at math; we should water that plant.’”
Three years later, Cline was at NCSSM. It was an incredible experience, he says, though he could have spent a little more of his time developing his academic resume than his social acumen.
“I always felt like I was lucky to get into Science and Math, and I never felt a hundred percent on par with the high quality of some of the students,” he says. “I felt like I didn’t belong academically for one reason or another.”
Before STEM was even cool
For Barber, the path through school was different. The youngest of three siblings, she was raised in a segregated society in the small town of Port Gibson, Mississippi, just a few miles from the Mississippi River. Though growing up in an era openly hostile to the aspirations of young Black Americans, Barber had the support of her educator parents who themselves had defied systemic resistance to earn college degrees. Highly motivated, the self-described “nerdy science and math person” (before the STEM acronym existed, she notes) graduated from her all-Black high school in 1963 at just 15 years old.
But the shadow of Jim Crow loomed, reminding Blacks, Barber says, to stay in their place. “Those were,” she says, “some hard times.”
Barber moved onto the campus of Alcorn State University before she was even old enough to drive. At 18, when most students were graduating from high school, Barber received her bachelor’s degree and began teaching high school biology, chemistry, and physics back in Port Gibson. In time she earned a master’s degree from Jackson State University (while also raising two sons) before realizing that, if she wanted an advanced degree, she would have to leave Mississippi.
Howard University for her doctorate was Barber’s next stop. From there, she moved to North Carolina for postdoc work in the department of medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was there at Carolina that Barber was immersed in a predominantly White environment for the very first time.
It wasn’t the only first. Barber was unknowingly making history at UNC as the first-ever Black postdoctoral fellow in the school of medicine at UNC. “Nobody told me,” she says of the distinction. “I just thought I was another person there.”
After completing her postdoc, Barber entertained employment offers from throughout the country, including a position on the kidney transplant team at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York. But she chose to stay put in North Carolina, accepting an administrative position at NCSSM that also allowed her the opportunity to teach.
Four years later she would meet Cline.
After high school, Cline made his way through college, grad school, and ultimately a number of increasingly significant jobs until he had become a partner at Vista Equity Partners, an Austin, Texas-based private equity firm.
Becoming a partner in a firm isn’t a fluke. Cline had worked hard to reach that point. But a lot of people work hard, and yet never get a chance to excel. All along for Cline there was this developing sense that plenty of capable kids just didn’t find the same support or spark that he had found to change the trajectory of their lives. How was that possible?
Cline says he knows how. It was White privilege.
“It’s unfair,” he says of the unequal access to opportunity that allowed him to flourish while others equally as talented continue to struggle. “It’s an unfair social inequity that I benefit from through nothing I did to deserve it. I did not grow up with a ton of money; I did not grow up with everything you wanted in life, but I did grow up with certain advantages that can’t be underscored enough.”
Barber did, too, in a way. With successful educators as parents, she acknowledges having had a built-in advantage over many of her peers in her segregated school. The segregated nature of her elementary and high school also allowed her to operate within the immediate curriculum without restriction.
That recognition has motivated Barber her entire professional career. NCSSM’s students are often touted as some of North Carolina’s most talented, but that doesn’t mean they all enter equally prepared. Barber began to see that kids entering NCSSM from rural, underserved communities were often arriving at a competitive disadvantage, not having had the access to advanced courses in their home schools that many of their NCSSM classmates did. So she created a program in 2013 called Summer Bridge to help incoming students of any ethnicity from challenged school systems level up. But it soon became clear that, smart though they were, underserved minority students were at the greatest disadvantage.
In their faces and experiences, Barber saw her own young image.
“I came from Port Gibson, Mississippi. I knew I was missing a lot. And I know that some school systems are missing a lot,” she says, explaining the inspiration behind the URM programs the Barber Fund will be supporting. “Think about it: if you come from a disadvantaged family background, and you come from a disadvantaged county in North Carolina, and your school didn’t offer opportunities like in Mecklenburg County or Wake County, and then you put on top of that that you may be the first-generation college-seeking person in your family, and then you add to that that you’re an underrepresented minority? You have to admit: that’s a lot to deal with. These programs provide those students with support structures that have been proven to help students be successful in STEM fields.”
As for many others throughout the country, 2020 marked a turning point for Cline. The demonstrations against systemic racism in the United States compelled him to take the closest look yet at the trajectory of his life in light of the struggles of so many others. “I would say there has been a huge accelerant of that over the past year or two in terms of getting a level deeper on that understanding beyond a cursory understanding I already had.”
Together with his wife, Cline felt compelled to contribute to the change that was underway. “What can I do as someone who is not a person of color to help and do it in a positive way?” he and his wife asked themselves. Together they began making smaller donations to a number of organizations both locally and nationally that they felt were doing good work on social causes. Then they began to think more closely about targeted efforts to help “move the needle.” NCSSM became one of a handful of organizations — three of which are education-related — they subsequently committed themselves to.
There’s a bold line connecting Cline’s time at NCSSM and what he hopes the Barber Fund will accomplish. “Sometimes there was a very modest knowledge gap that needed to be closed, but I just didn’t know how to close it,” he recalls. “Sometimes it was just needing the confidence to know that I could figure it out.
“To me, the programs that we are supporting at Science and Math really are aligned with doing just that. They’re not grand in all the things they do — we can all point back to the three, four, five pivotal moments in our life that may be small — like that little bit of extra attention I started getting in the eighth grade — but they made a big difference in do we go left or do we go right. These programs really feel like they’re reaching students at that pivotal moment.”
Barber was stunned when she learned of the Clines’s donation. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “It made me emotional. I started these two programs, and now that money is going to go directly to them. It never would have occurred to me that this would happen.”
Perhaps most moving to Barber is that a White alum who never faced the systemic challenges encountered by so many young minorities felt compelled to support URM programming at NCSSM in such a significant manner.
“Things happen in mysterious ways,” she says. “As a Black female, I never expected much as far as me making an impact in North Carolina, at the school. But having Step up to STEM and the Summer Leadership and Research program as models for closing the racial and gender gap in STEM is really great. It’s happening. It’s unbelievable. I always said that if any school in the country could do it, the School of Science and Math could. We’re going to make Alan Cline proud of us.”
But it’s not about him at all, Cline says. It’s about the kids the program will support. And about putting Dr. Barber’s name on the fund to honor her heart, spirit, and innovation. “She may not have known that she made such a positive and substantial impression on me,” he says, “but she did.”
Barber reflects. “That’s something, isn’t it?”
To support this fund or other NCSSM minority-related programs, please visit our foundation website here.