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Student Spotlight: For Abel Walker, Sustainability is Key to Living Well

NC State Plant Biology student Abel Walker is planning a future in sustainable agriculture.

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences senior Abel Walker looks forward to the day he’ll get to tell his grandchildren about his first time attending an NC State sporting event. He walked into the PNC Arena with the equivalent of a backstage pass: an invitation to tell his NC State story to the university’s chancellor and guests in the Chancellor’s Suite.

[pullquote color=’red’ align=’left’]I believed in the leader that this university was going to make me into.[/pullquote]After getting gently ribbed by Chancellor Randy Woodson for wearing a green jacket – Notre Dame was playing against NC State that day – he delivered a brief yet poignant talk highlighting his appreciation of university donors whose gifts had made possible his experiences as a Caldwell Fellow.

“I won’t lie; in the beginning, I was as starry-eyed about the things on our campus as any other college freshman,” the plant biology student recalled. “The Wolf Ears, the Bookbot, the monolith that is the Talley Student Union, the fact that there is literally a nuclear reactor on campus, and lest we forget, the dreidel-like chairs in DH Hill that are exhilarating to spin in. But as time progressed and the novelty of my surroundings faded, I was left to ponder my real motivation for pursuing my education here.

“I found it to be simple; I believed in the leader that this university was going to make me into,” he said. “I knew that I’d walk out of this experience a better skeptic. I’d learn more about critical thinking and scrutinize how much I was challenging myself to learn.”

Walker recently elaborated on his NC State experiences and the steps he’s taking to prepare for life after his December graduation.

What led you to NC State and to CALS?

I’ve never been much of a sports fan, but I was a fan of NC State because I had a chemistry teacher who really supported going there. … When I visited, I really liked what I saw: The other schools that I had gotten into became irrelevant; I knew I was coming here to NC State.

My first semester, I was in the first-year college because I wasn’t sure whether I was going to pursue business, engineering or something in the humanities. As soon as I got here I was working with a professor, Dr. Todd Wehner, who studies cucurbits. He hooked me up with a Ph.D. student, James Daley, who showed me everything. They were so open in their commitment to empowering and educating their undergrads. They treated me like I had something to contribute. So, I knew in that first semester that I was going to study plants.

After I worked with Dr. Wehner, he put me in contact with Dr. Lina Quesada, who studies plant diseases. My work was on fungal pathogens. This one day in Dr. Quesada’s lab, I was straining my eyes — I couldn’t see what I was working with very well. … I thought, ‘What about the bigger fungi?’ That was a life-changing question. I started reading about the larger fungi, and from that point I worked last semester with someone who runs a local garden to grow her mushroom operation. So now my ambition is to start a business around growing mushrooms in shipping containers.

What has the Caldwell Fellows Program meant to you?

It was clear from the time that I went through the interview that the people associated with the program don’t believe in success for the sake of success. They wanted to hear your ability to reflect and discuss things with others and be a good team player. In hindsight, I think it’s been the most important experience of coming here. I would be telling a completely different story if I hadn’t been in the program. It’s been the cornerstone of my development as a leader.

The program focuses on servant leadership: They start by helping you understand what you personally contribute — what is it specifically about your skill set and your experience that will make you a good team player: I now have a better understanding of what role I play. For example, I understand that with this upcoming mushroom business venture, I need other people with different strengths to bring balance. (Learn more about Abel’s experience as a Caldwell Fellow.)

The fellows program is named for the late Chancellor John T. Caldwell, who was known for encouraging students to think big. What comes to mind when you reflect on that?

I find myself repeating Dr. Caldwell’s words at least once weekly – his words remind us to try to go beyond what we think we can do. A year and a half ago, I didn’t know a lot about starting a business, and those words challenged me to think about, ‘If I could do what I wanted, and to accept that I could find the means to make that happen, I should plunge right in.’

For a long time, I saw furthering my education and hammering down something in the Research Triangle Park as a safe alternative.  But now, I think, ‘Do something you want to do. Do something out of the norm. Move outside your comfort zone.’ The other part of Chancellor Caldwell’s quote is, ‘You never know how magnificent you can be.’ To me, it speaks to the importance of having resolve, even when you are facing challenges you don’t know if you can overcome.

What is it about becoming a mushroom farmer that you are excited about?

Whether it be mushrooms — or if a year from now, it’s about growing herbs – my friends and I see this as our foot in the door with sustainable agriculture. To me, it’s equal parts wanting to care for the environment and living a sustainable lifestyle. It’s all about living well – it’s not just to earn a livelihood, it’s as a lifestyle. You live within your means, and if you maintain a lot of your own livelihood, you are not so constrained by needing wealth. That’s what I want to do – that’s my thing.

Walker’s experiences at NC State have been supported by the Donald E. and Verdie S. Moreland John T. Caldwell Alumni Scholarship Endowment. He also received the Norris Tolson Family College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Undergraduate Education Scholarship.

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