Championing women’s sports at Carolina FORevHER

Erica Vrana swimming at UNC-CH. She swam for the university from 1997 to 2000. Photo courtesy of Caroline Daly.


By Caroline Daly
UNC Media Hub student correspondent                  

Anna Barton, a native of Palo Alto, California, is working on her Master’s in Business Administration, or MBA, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she just finished her four-year women’s lacrosse career, which included a national championship in 2022. 

Erica Vrana finished her UNC swimming career in 2000 and is now a managing director of investor relations at Morgan Creek Capital Management in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The two may never have met if it wasn’t for FORevHER Tar Heels, a mentorship program that partners women’s athletics at Carolina with the Rams Club. 

Barton and Vrana were paired together through FORevHER in January 2022. The mentorship program connects former female Carolina student-athletes with current female Carolina student-athletes, aiming to align the personalities and interests of the mentor and mentee. 

Shelley Johnson, the creator of the FORevHER mentorship program, said, “You’re achieving your personal best athletically, and the goal is to be able to translate that into your personal next when it comes to professionally, personally, or socially.”

Potential mentees must fill out a survey about their interests in athletics, academics, or careers in order to be paired with a mentor.

Barton heard about the FORevHER program through the athletic department and wanted to get involved. She was interested in finance and business, so she wanted someone who could mentor her in that aspect of her life. She wanted more connections in her possible career field rather than a connection through her sport. 

FORevHER paired her with Vrana, who has more than 20 years of business experience. When Vrana returned to Chapel Hill after working in New York after graduation, she wanted to be more involved in the community. She got involved in alumni programs with UNC, one of which is FORevHER. Former student-athletes like Vrana want to give back after their time at a university, and FORevHER gives them the chance to make an impact.

I think for women’s sports, it’s a great confidence builder. It’s great having a mentor in life, really everyone should have a mentor for whatever profession you’re in,” Vrana said. 

As Barton’s mentor, Vrana tries to contact Barton to get on her schedule, which often isn’t easy, especially when Barton is juggling the demanding schedule of being a student and a women’s lacrosse player.  

Her time was typically spent on the lacrosse field, in the weight room, sitting in a classroom or traveling on a plane. However, now it is easier since Barton is just focusing on her MBA. 

Anna Barton playing lacrosse for the women’s lacrosse team. Barton played from 2019-2023 for the program, winning a national championship in 2022. Photo courtesy of Caroline Daly.

“You’re so consumed by sports all the time in school, so it’s really hard to break through and find a connection,” Barton said. “So, it means a lot to women’s athletics because it allows you to have this connection into this job market world into the Carolina family world that you can then network with their peers or their mentors.”

Vrana and Barton meet up a few times a month to stay in touch over coffee to catch up on what is going on in each other’s lives. Vrana enjoys giving Barton advice to help her navigate her career path. Having a background in business has helped Barton realize that she wants to pursue the real estate side of business. 

“I think being able to give back and try and, you know, help them to see what life is like post a collegiate athletic background is really gratifying,” Vrana said. “She’s just as much helping me as I am helping her as being a role model and mentor.”

FORevHER doesn’t just have a mentorship program for female student-athletes – the initiative aids women’s athletics at Carolina in endless ways. 

Beth MacKethan, a senior philanthropy officer with the Rams Club, said, “FORevHER Tar Heels was started as an initiative to raise awareness and financial support to ensure excellence and across Carolina’s women’s athletic programs and the related student-athlete experience – and to support and prepare these student-athletes for their time at Carolina and beyond.”

In addition to scholarship and capital project funding for UNC’s women’s varsity programs, all of UNC’s women’s program operating endowments have been funded at a minimum of $1 million. The Rams Club’s work continues to grow these funds to ensure there is sustained support to ensure success and opportunity for each of their women’s teams.

Since 2019, Rams Club members and friends have provided more than $350,000 through the FORevHER Tar Heels Excellence Fund to support the unique funding needs for these programs and athletes, such as wellness initiatives and programming, leadership programming, speakers, career treks, support for post-season travel and experiences, and more.

Emily Stevens, a major gifts director with the Rams Club, said she loves that the initiative promotes former Carolina student-athletes as leaders and commits their time to current student-athletes.

“My favorite thing about FORevHER is that our women win,” Stevens said. “And through FORevHER, our donors have been able to provide them with championship resources to win more, reach more women and inspire others.”

The FORevHER mentorship program that brought Barton and Vrana together was created in February 2020. 

The program recruits female student-athletes during the second semester of their sophomore year. They remain in the program through their graduation. 

Student-athletes are supported athletically, academically, and career-wise. Their mentors connect with them based on criteria for appropriate connections and partnerships. The bulk of the mentorship experience happens in the one-on-one meetings between the specific mentors and mentees. 

Johnson said, “We hope it’s a mutually beneficial experience, and that [the mentors] see the investment that they have made either monetarily or just time, effort, resources, insight, lived experience, that they’re able to, you know, give back to either a university or an athletics department or to a sport that has given a lot to them.” 

There are also booster events for all mentors and mentees, where everyone comes together to network and share their experiences as current and former student-athletes at a university with a top-tier reputation for athletic and academic success. 

“It’s just amazing, even for me, when I get into the room with the other mentors to see the women in the room and their careers and their success and where they’ve been in the world,” Vrana said. “I’ve met people that I would love to talk to and learn from so I think it’s not only like, learning from me, but learning from the experiences that women can build together.” 

The caliber of the connections these student-athletes are making is most evident at these booster events, where Carolina blue rooms are filled with Olympians and national champions, women with master’s and doctorate degrees, and more outstanding alumnae. 

“There’s something so special when you bring the student-athletes and the mentors together. The amount of life experience in the room, the level of accomplishment of these people,” Johnson said. 

It’s inspiring not just for the student-athletes but also for the mentors to be a part of a program full of such accomplished women. “I think giving back to the community and giving back to these student-athletes gives me the chills,” Vrana said. “It’s just wonderful. It’s a great program.”

Being a student-athlete at UNC-CH is never easy, so it is comforting to know that other women have also gone through this somewhat overwhelming experience. 

Johnson said, “They have gone through that experience of balancing academics, athletics, and some semblance of social life during their time at Carolina.” 

The hope is that the student-athletes will grow up to mentor other students in UNC athletics. For Barton, this trickle effect happened sooner than expected.  

While Barton and Vrana’s relationship has grown over the years, Barton coincidentally ended up coaching Vrana’s daughters, who are 8 and 10 years old, and play with the Chapel Hill Rams through Ultimate Lacrosse. This helped bond them even more. 

Anna Barton coaching Erica Vrana’s children in lacrosse. Photo courtesy of Caroline Daly.

Vrana said, “I’m her mentor, but she’s just as much a mentor to my kids as I am to her.” 

Barton’s ultimate goal is to stay in touch with the university as she continues on in her life. She hopes to come back to FORevHER to mentor alongside Vrana, keeping the tradition of having women of all ages, athletic backgrounds, and careers mentor in the program. 

Once Barton earns her MBA in May, she hopes to move back to California near San Francisco this summer to work on the real estate side of business. Vrana will still mentor her through this experience while also gaining a new female student-athlete mentee. 

Vrana sums up the FORevHER program with connections, community, and confidence. These athletes are pursuing careers in the real world and staying connected with the Carolina family.

As Carolina continues championing women’s sports through this program, the mentor-mentee duo of Barton and Vrana has developed a connection and bond that they will have FORevHER. 

“They always talk about the Carolina sphere and how it’s a family, even outside of Carolina,” Barton said. “This FORevHER program has kind of allowed me to engrave my roots and hopefully eventually give back and do it for someone else when I’m older and more established.”

UNC Media Hub is a collection of students in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina. TLR is proud to support student journalists from UNC Media Hub.

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