Project Graduation began in Chapel Hill-Carrboro in 1993, initiated by a small but determined group of students, parents and school personnel. Their vision was to start a yearly tradition for the high school, providing a safe, drug- and alcohol-free celebration following graduation. They wanted a student-driven event so that students would attend, and they wanted it to be free for all seniors. They contacted the leadership of the Durham Project Graduation and received initial guidance from that group.

The two biggest obstacles in the beginning were finding a place to hold Project Graduation and finding funds to support the celebration. Obtaining the use of the UNC Student Union was a turning point in getting Project Graduation off the ground. Organizers initially used their own funds for expenses such as postage, and then solicited the community for donations of prizes, food and cash. The community responded generously and has continued to do so year after year.

Project Graduation operated through the Lincoln Center offices of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools for fundraising and check writing in its first year. The following year, the organizers recognized the need for charitable status and requested to operate under the auspices of the Public School Foundation. After Project Graduation 1994, the core group of organizers saw the need to have their own non-profit status. They wrote by-laws, organized a board of directors, and applied for and received non-profit status as a 501(c)(3) organization. The Board of Directors consists of students, parents, and members from the community and the school system.

For the first several years of Project Graduation, there was only one high school in the City Schools System. When the second high school was being planned, the Board established a policy to include it and any additional high schools that might be added in the future. Parent co-chairs, representing each high school, serve on the Board of Directors for the year that they serve as chairs. The Board also includes, as ex-officio members, the student co-chairs, the high school principals, the school health coordinator, the superintendent, and the manager of the UNC Carolina Student Union Center. The leadership of the Carolina Student Union has generously hosted Project Graduation and provided outstanding support to its planning efforts throughout its history.

Project Graduation has grown with our student population over the years, and each year it is given a new personality by the senior class planning it. (The various themes are evident in the designs from past years.) The goal of Project Graduation has always been to provide a safe environment for our seniors on their graduation night, and it has been very successful in that regard. Attendance by the graduates from the very beginning has been outstanding. The Chapel Hill News reported, after the first Project Graduation in 1993, that “Project Graduation was a resounding success and those who were there Thursday night got in on the ground floor of what promises to be a new graduation night tradition in Chapel Hill.” That tradition has continued for over 20 years thanks to thousands of hours of effort by hundreds of volunteers and the generous support of numerous individuals and businesses in the community.