When Dr. Laura Whatley arrived in North Carolina to pursue her master’s degree in crop science at N.C. State 34 years ago, she was driving a car without air conditioning. In August.
“I arrived on campus sight unseen, having driven from Michigan in my very first car,” she says. “I remember sitting at an intersection with sweat rolling down my face. It was hot!”
But that’s just about the only complaint Whatley will give about her time at N.C. State. In fact, when she reminisces about her days as a grad student and the people she worked with, she becomes emotional.
“At N.C. State I learned that a university could promote academic excellence and be people-oriented,” she says. “It was clear that my instructors wanted me to succeed, whether they were in the Crop Science Department or not. People were really, really kind. I was awed by it.”
When Whatley was a student, her mother had to have surgery and needed someone to help her afterward.
“I wanted to go home, but I certainly didn’t have the money to fly to Michigan,” she says. A fellow church member wanted to help Whatley. It was his kindness that inspired her years later to create similar opportunities for students in situations of unforeseen economic hardship. She also wanted to give back to the university, which she credits with her professional success.
“If it weren’t for N.C. State, I would not be anywhere near where I am today,” she says. “It was really pivotal. And there were a lot of people who extended kindness to me, so I wanted to pay it forward.”
To that end, she recently created the Laura Medlen Whatley and Thomas L. Whatley Crop Science Student Emergency Fund, which will help any crop science student who may experience unexpected economic hardship or changes in their financial status.
Whatley, who serves on the BASF Corp. regulatory team, also elected to add to her endowment through her will by naming the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation Inc. in her estate.
Whatley earned her bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Michigan in 1976 and her master’s degree in crop science from N.C. State in 1978. She went on to become the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in agronomy in the weed science curriculum from the University of Illinois.
After starting her career as a member of the Mississippi State University faculty, Whatley later moved to New Jersey to work for American Cyanamid Co.’s Agricultural Research Division. When the company was acquired by BASF in 2000, Whatley and her husband moved back to North Carolina.
“I was thrilled,” she says. “I never dreamed I’d live near N.C. State again.”
By establishing her endowment, Whatley has created a legacy that will inextricably link her in perpetuity to the place she loves.
“I had to pay for everything on my own as a student, so I understand that struggle,” she says. “And I figure, if I could make it easier for students facing hardship, wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
— Suzanne Stanard