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“Take the Next Right Step”: A Conversation with Kimberly Eshleman

Kimberly Eshleman, special projects manager in the Agricultural and Human Sciences Department, has been an NC State employee since 2016. Now, she’s taking on a new position: graduate student. We chatted with Eshleman about her passion for family science, her work as a special projects manager, and what’s to come as she pursues a master of science degree in Youth, Family, and Community Sciences.

Kimberly Eshleman

Tell us about your work as special projects manager. 

In my role as special projects manager in the Agricultural and Human Sciences Department, I have had the opportunity to work on several projects and programs related to food and nutrition, and health. The Faithful Families Thriving Communities program works with faith communities across North Carolina and in states across the U.S. to promote health for individuals, families, and communities through direct peer education and support for the policy, systems, and environmental change to support health. In my role with Faithful Families, I have been able to work with health educators and agents from Cooperative Extension, local health departments, and other organizations who provide health-related community outreach to support their efforts to provide education and support for faith communities as they work to improve the health of their congregations and wider communities. At the end of 2021, my role shifted a bit to support program implementation in North Carolina through a strengthened partnership with Steps to Health, NC State’s SNAP-Education program. 

The other part of my job has shifted over the years to support grant-funded projects – both research and community outreach projects – related to food and nutrition and health. I have had the privilege of working as a part of interdisciplinary teams to manage the administrative requirements on several grant projects that supported work in rural communities to support health through initiatives related to improving access to healthy foods and physical activity as well as built environment and systems change to impact health. 

You’ve recently started graduate studies in Youth, Family, and Community Sciences (YFCS), and are part of the last cohort of students who will earn degrees in YFCS, rather than in the new joint degree entitled Agricultural Education and Human Sciences. Tell us about your plans for graduate school, and how it feels to be among the last accepted YFCS students. 

Right now, my plan is to attend part-time, while working full time. I will likely take one class at a time. If I stick to that plan, I should graduate in 2025. That seems like a long time from now! But I’m taking it one semester at a time, and looking forward to learning along the way. I’ve learned to never try to predict what may happen, so I plan to just take the next right step as it presents itself.

During my time as an employee at NC State in the Agricultural and Human Sciences department, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the YFCS program and the incredible students that have come through the program and the paths that they pursue to make an impact on families and communities in their careers. I feel humbled to be a part of a program with such an incredible legacy, privileged to be a part of this last admitted class, and excited about the shape that the program will take as it continues to grow and move into the future alongside the Agricultural and Extension Education program. 

What led you to family science, and what makes you passionate about this discipline?

When I learned about the opportunity to join a research project team as a part-time project manager back in 2016, research, community outreach, and the academic environment and role of Extension in the state were all unfamiliar to me. My background was in the legal field. After taking a break to be a full-time parent for a couple of years, I knew I was ready to try something new, and I knew I wanted to do something that would be community and service-oriented. Each step since then has been just the next right step, guided by a growing interest in family and community life and the impact of systemic and societal structures on the ways that life takes shape in those contexts. The stories I have encountered have not always been easy to hold but they always challenge me to think critically about the world and my place in it and so many of these stories have inspired me to hope. These personal and professional changes for which I will always be grateful because I think they have helped me grow as an employee, neighbor, parent, family member, citizen, and friend. 

Additionally, my professional experiences, especially during the time I have been at NC State working on programs and projects related to health and families, have given me the opportunity to see the incredible strengths and contributions that families make to community life, as well as the wide range of complex challenges that many families face in day-to-day life.  I believe that families and communities play a critically important role in development for individuals and their ability to thrive, but are also an essential part of the fabric of our society, and I think that every family should have access to the resources and support they need for holistic health and well-being and fulfillment. 

How has your time so far at NC State impacted you? Your career? Your future studies? 

My time at NC State has been a series of small steps that have challenged, stretched, and shaped the way I think about myself, my community, the world, and the passion and purpose I can bring to my work. I often say that if I had known earlier in my life that it was possible to make a career out of what I have been able to experience these last few years, my trajectory may have been quite different. I have been lucky enough to be involved in programs and projects that align with my values and interests and that allow me to make a contribution to my state and my community. Many of the projects I have worked on have afforded me the privilege of learning and holding the stories of individuals, families, and communities. Those stories and experiences have changed me in big ways and small and have nurtured my desire to dig deeper into the field of family and community science and to strive to find ways to elevate these kinds of stories to effect change, inform practice, and serve the common good.

Are there any NC State faculty, staff, or peers, in particular, who stand out and have helped you along the way? 

I have been incredibly fortunate to work with and be mentored by several faculty members during my time at NC State – Annie Hardison-Moody, Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, Dara Bloom, and Sarah Bowen. They have been generous with their time, patience, guidance, and expertise, giving me latitude for both personal and professional growth, trusting me with new roles and responsibilities, valuing my work as a collaborator, and providing an incredibly supportive and encouraging work environment that has allowed me to apply and expand my interests, take on new challenges, and continue to maintain a healthy work-life balance. 

I will never be able to name all of the other individual peers, staff, and faculty members who have made an impact on my work and life at NC State and my path to this new endeavor. I have had the opportunity to learn from so many committed county and state-level professionals who care deeply about the communities where they are rooted and who are doing extraordinary things to educate about and advocate for health and well-being in their local communities. Working alongside so many people who dedicate themselves to the task of providing resources and support to improve the lives of North Carolinians, and doing so with compassion and thoughtfulness, makes me proud and grateful to be a part of an institution, both professionally and now as a student, with such reach and impact in the state I love and call home.

Who inspires you?

This is a bit of a broad answer, but when I think of who has inspired me in my life thus far and who continues to inspire me to courage, hope, determination, love and care for others, and joy, the simple answer is the mothers in my life. I have been lucky  enough to be cared for and nurtured by a mother, grandmothers, and aunts – from my early life until now – who have not only demonstrated resilience in the face of adversity, but have provided the support and connection I have needed to meet the challenges in my own life. Just as importantly, these women have been present in my life to share joy in ordinary moments and milestones and have been consistent examples of the impact that love, humility, and service to family, neighbor, and community can have on the lives of not only those closest to us but the wider world around us. I am inspired daily by both their vulnerability and strength, their ability to love with selflessness while finding ways to maintain their center, and the unique ways each of them views the world and strives to make it better not just for their own families but for all families. 

What are your plans for the future? Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

This one is hard to know! For now, I think the next five years will hopefully bring the completion of my Master’s degree and continued opportunities to grow into the roles I currently have participating as part of a team in program implementation and development, as well as any opportunities that may arise to be a part of a research team working to better understand both the strengths and resilience and the challenges and needs of families and informing strategies and approaches to support that can help every family to get the resources they need to thrive. I am particularly interested in understanding the resilience of families meeting challenges related to mental health and understanding the roles that community plays through policy, programs, and practice to provide these families with resources and support.  I love being a part of an organizational environment that encourages continuous learning, growth, and innovation and one with such a reach into communities across the state that is my home, so wherever I ultimately land in the future, I hope to continue a lifelong process of learning and contributing to the communities I am a part of.

You can learn more about the teaching, research, and extension we do in the Agricultural and Human Sciences Department at our website.