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New Grads are Career Ready

Meet three CALS students primed and prepared for the future.

a woman wearing a red graduation gown stands on brick stairs
Nutrition sciences major Carly Centanni will graduate on Saturday.

It’s a momentous milestone to be sure: One that has taken many years of hard work and perseverance to achieve. On Dec. 16, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University will welcome its newest crop of alumni into the fold as nearly 300 undergraduate and graduate students celebrate the completion of their degrees during fall commencement.

Three of those soon-to-be graduates, including Michael Palko, Mary Elizabeth Morris and Carly Centanni, say it’s an accomplishment filled with nostalgia, excitement and a little trepidation as they reflect on their time at NC State and look to the future.

Learn more about their roads to commencement. And congratulations to all graduating members of the CALS Wolfpack!

a woman stands in a corn field with two men looking at a laptop
Mary Elizabeth Morris will start her first post-graduation job with Bayer next month.

Growing a New Legacy

As a ninth- generation farmer, there was never any question in Mary Elizabeth Morris’ mind that she would pursue a career in agriculture. But as an agricultural business management major, her horizons have expanded as she’s explored the different avenues of agricultural business and the many career paths within that field.

“My granddaddy was a tobacco farmer in the ‘80ss and ’90s. Then in the 2000s they wanted to go in a different direction after the tobacco buyout,” says Morris of her family’s farm in Snow Hill, North Carolina. “So when I was younger I saw corn, I saw cotton.”

Then she watched as her grandparents shifted to livestock production, primarily raising cattle and hogs on an all- natural diet and selling directly to the consumer. And although her parents, uncles and cousins have other jobs, her grandparents’ farm, Nooheroka Natural, is very much a family affair, with everyone pitching in during peak times.

Running a family farm is more than a job, though, it’s a way of life — one that can be challenging for someone just starting out. At the encouragement of her parents, Morris started looking at possible careers outside of the family business. After attending the CALS Hot Jobs Fair at the suggestion of John Russ, undergraduate coordinator for the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, she landed an internship last summer with Bayer Crop Science, working with the Channel seed brand. 

As a crop science sales intern, Morris spent 10 weeks in Morganfield, Kentucky, learning about Channel seed brand corn and beans. Having virtually no experience with row crops, Morris says the internship seemed like an odd pairing until she reflected on the interconnected nature of agriculture during her interview.

“I was like, ‘Well, to be in agriculture you have to appreciate all sectors of agriculture. You have to realize how they all connect. Like our corn, someone else raises it and then we buy it and we feed it to our animals and then we sell our products to the consumer,’” she recalls saying. “I think it’s important for everybody to get an understanding of the connection to the farmer, the rancher and the consumer.”

RELATED: Online Grad Finds Her Passion at NC State

She quickly took to the science and sales of seeds and row crops.

“Everyday was different and that’s what I really enjoyed,” Morris says. “I got to learn about the fertility of plants and the application of plants, the growth stages — something I had never really understood because I didn’t really grow up in that environment.”

As it turns out, it’s an environment in which Morris thrives. She’ll start her first post-graduation job next month in Ohio as a field sales rep trainee with Bayer. 

It’s a path that surprises Morris, but as a CALS student ambassador and a member of the Ag Business Management Club, she’s learned to be open minded.

“You have so many options. I’m literally an ag business management major coming from a background in animals and I’m going to be working in row crops,” she says “There are’s so many opportunities out there and I just feel like people shouldn’t miss out on those things because they have such a dead set path that they want to take.”

a man stands in front of a brick building
Michael Palko found his way as a major in agricultural science through the Agricultural Institute.

Taking a Bet on Farming

Unlike Morris, Michael Palko fell into agriculture somewhat by happenstance after two FFA teachers took him under their wing during his years at Millbrook High School in Raleigh. 

After initially not getting into NC State as an animal science major, Palko decided to pursue a two-year degree in livestock and poultry management through CALS’ Agricultural Institute. His growing interest in farming, particularly in the policy and advocacy side of the industry, led him to continue on with a four-year degree as an agricultural science major

“The matriculation between the two- year and four- year programs was not super hard, and it was a thing where it was like I felt like I could still get more at NC State,” Palko says.

And he has made the most of it, serving as a CALS student ambassador and in several leadership roles with the Animal Science Club, including as president. 

“It’s a huge club and there’s a lot of great people in it,” says Palko, noting that he really enjoyed helping with the club’s Milk Booth at the North Carolina State Fair, where he talked about cows and the dairy industry. “I got to learn so much from so many people.”

He also honed his communication skills as a science communication minor through the interdisciplinary Agricultural Communications Program. An internship as a communications intern with the university’s Center of Excellence for Regulatory Science in Agriculture helped Palko put those skills to use promoting workshops and communications resources.

Additional internships with CALS’ Feed Mill Educational Unit as well as a research technician with Applied Poultry Research LLC rounded out Palko’s classroom experience and better prepared him for working in agriculture.

Looking ahead, he plans to pursue a career in agricultural sales or with a commodity organization. Palko eventually hopes to carve a path for himself in agricultural advocacy.

“I feel like a lot of times people are so far removed from agriculture that you forget that it’s there … and so I think, long-term, I’d like to find something where I can help educate the general public on agriculture and I can help advocate for agricultural issues in both agricultural spaces and public spaces,” he says. 

a woman wearing a red graduation gown stands by a gray marble wall
Carly Centanni will pursue a degree as a physician assistant after majoring in nutrition sciences.

A Nutritious Path to Healthcare

Initially majoring in biology seemed like the right path for Carly Centanni, who has always planned to have a career in healthcare. However, after she took Intro to Nutrition her freshman year, she began seeking another way to reach that goal.

“I thought it was one of the most interesting classes I’d taken,” Centanni recalls. “So, I looked into majoring in nutrition sciences and realized I could still meet all of my prerequisites (to apply to a physician assistant program) and a lot of the major could be applied in the clinical setting.”

And by pursuing a concentration in applied nutrition, Centanni has been able to learn about the practical aspects of nutrition and how nutritional needs vary depending on the different stages of life. She’s taken classes on child and adolescent nutrition as well as nutrition for older adults. A class focusing on nutrition and chronic diseases highlighted the importance of diet for patients with illnesses such as diabetes or hypertension.

That information became even more meaningful after Centanni earned her license as a certified nursing assistant in 2022 and began working as a home health aide to get hands-on experience with patients to apply to a physician assistant program.

“It’s been such a great experience to get a background in nutrition,” says the Charlotte native. “Nutrition directly relates to people and it really looks at things from a clinical aspect.”

Additionally she’s gotten career mentorship and seminars as a member of the Pre-PA/Nursing Club at NC State, which included information about the application process for physician assistant programs as well as hands-on training for skills like suturing.

As she prepares to apply for PA programs this spring, Centanni says her major in nutrition sciences already has her thinking about pursuing specialty fields such as gastroenterology or endocrinology, both of which involve diet and nutrition.

“I want to be able to use this knowledge and continue to use it throughout my career.”