The first female American Indian graduate of the UNC-Chapel Hill, Genevieve Lowry Cole, returned to the college town in January 2017 to speak with the Division of Clinical Laboratory Science about her experiences as a student.
After graduating from UNC-CH in 1954, Cole spent 57 years working in the health care field including 52 working in North Carolina. Her story is one of triumph for American Indians and women as she ignored social standards to fulfill her dream.
Cole was born in Pembroke, North Carolina, in 1932. She is a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina. Due to segregation laws, separate schooling systems existed in Pembroke. Consequently, Cole attended an all-Indian school through grade 12.
Pembroke was a safe haven for the often-persecuted Lumbee tribe.
“They wouldn’t let you in at the restaurants, they wouldn’t let you in at the movies, but we didn’t have to use their theaters,” she said. “We really had everything we wanted right there in Pembroke,” Cole said.
After graduating at the top of her class, Cole enrolled at Pfeiffer University in 1950. She obtained an associate’s degree so that she could enroll in a medical technology program. Cole enrolled in the medical technology program at UNC-CH, now the Division of Clinical Laboratory Science in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the UNC School of Medicine.
During her time as a student, Cole faced an uphill battle, as laws prevented American Indians from attending the University. Despite this, she applied to UNC-CH and was accepted.
Cole said of the UNC-CH admissions officer at the time, “He knew that there would be no other reason other than I was an Indian to not be accepted, so he just ignored that fact and told me to apply, and I did.”
During a recent interview, Cole told her story and answered questions about her experience.
What did you think when you first came to UNC?
“I was treated like all of the others females and people on the campus; nothing special. I was not shy about my background, but I was reserved about introducing myself as an Indian unless they asked.”
“I think I was more interested in showing my educational background. I was more academically associated rather than socially.”
What motivated you to study medical technology?
“Even in my high school annual, I said I wanted to be a laboratory technician. I knew way back then I wanted to major in science. I just wanted to become a scientist.”
What would you say to today’s students?
“They are so much smarter, they know so much, they are exposed to so much and the technology has changed. I am just awed at what they are learning compared to what I learned. They have a look into the future.”
What does it mean to you to be a part of this legacy at Carolina?
“I am certainly proud of it. I had no idea when I was here that I would be the first one [female American Indian graduate.] It has made me appreciate the goodness that can come to somebody from a situation like I grew up in. It has made me very proud to be an American Indian, because I never visualized that I would be the first pioneer.”
GENEVIEVE LOWRY COLE TIMELINE
- 1932 Born in Pembroke, North Carolina on December 5
- 1937-1950 Attended all-Indian school, grades 1-12; valedictorian of her class
- 1950-1952 Attended Pfeiffer University and obtained an associate degree
- 1952-1954 Attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received a degree in medical technology. Cole was the first female American Indian to graduate from the University.
- 1955-1961 UNC Hospital Supervisor of Clinical Hematology
- 1961-1965 Clinical laboratories at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco, California
- 1977-1981 Senior Technologist in the Microbiology Laboratory at Duke Hospital
- 1982-1998 N.C. State Laboratory of Public Health in Raleigh, North Carolina. Cole was the branch head of mycobacteriology, mycology, and parasitology laboratories.
- 1991 until retirement in 2012 Part-time and full-time employment until 2012.
-Blake Morgan, DAHS communications assistant