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In Their Own Words: CALS First-Generation Students

Three young woman posing in front of a red patterned wall

North Carolina State University recognizes the trailblazers who are forging unknown paths and new opportunities—first-generation students. 

First-generation college students are those whose parents did not complete a four-year college degree. Their journeys are defined by unique challenges—financial, mental and emotional—as they carve a course toward educational achievement. 

Notable first-generation students include Garey Fox, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering from Texas A&M University and a doctorate in civil engineering from Colorado State University. 

“One of the biggest obstacles for me was the unknown and having to live the process as it occurs while not having anybody in my family to tell me what to do or expect,” recalls Fox, who went to college three hours away from his hometown of Godley, Texas. 

Joining the student chapter of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers was the key to Fox finding his footing during his undergraduate years. “I met people with similar interests, and I could ask questions of peers.”

That’s why Fox encourages students, especially first-generation students, to get involved in a student organization.

“It gives you a support network, and you make connections with other students, faculty and alumni, as well as potential employers,” he says. “It gets you engaged and opens up opportunities to see that college isn’t just about classes and learning; it’s also about service projects and taking advantage of leadership opportunities.”

Fox adds, “If you work hard, be open to asking questions and seeking out information, you will succeed.”

NC State’s First in the Pack program encourages first-gens to connect with others, get involved, access academic resources and find support. The F1RST at NC State student organization is another resource that helps prepare students for success during and beyond their college careers.

In recognition of First-Generation Celebration Week, Nov. 6-10, CALS is thrilled to highlight the diversity within its first-generation community. Read on to learn how these students’ experiences contribute to the college’s richness and depth. 

Destiny Wilson

Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
Degree Program: bachelor’s in agricultural business management, law and justice minor

I’m from Goldsboro, North Carolina, home to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Fun fact: my great-grandfather Sanders Wilson farmed that land before it became the base. 

When I told my mother I was applying to NC State, she told me she couldn’t help me financially. Neither she nor my father went to college, and my sisters only had a few semesters each. My going to college seemed like the moon landing. But I wanted something different for my life. I’ve always wanted to reach my potential and push my limits. 

To help them understand, I’ve invited my parents to NC State. Together, we’ve toured the campus, eaten lunch in Talley, visited my classes and discussed what I’ve learned.

For students who have college-educated parents, attending school is like driving on a road with straight lines. But for first-generation college students, it’s like trying to figure out how to use a road atlas in the Atlantic Ocean. There are no guidelines. We have to figure it out ourselves. 

In ninth grade, my teacher and mentor told me, “You’re going to be in FFA, and it’s going to change your life.” I didn’t think I could be the successful leader he wanted me to be. But we had daily conversations about my plans, and he gave me great advice. 

Last year, I was the North Carolina FFA state vice president. Now, I’m interning for N.C. Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler. If it were not for the example my teacher set and the kindness he showed me, I would not be here today.

Young woman in yellow dress smiling
Four young women posing outside
High school students standing on a stage
Wilson was the 2022-2023 North Carolina FFA state vice president.

Sabrina Singh

Interdisciplinary Physiology Graduate Program
Degree Program: master’s in physiology

I always wanted to be a doctor. My goal to become a doctor solidified when my best friend was in a horrible car accident. I was grateful for the doctors who saved her life and wanted to become one so I could save lives, too. 

My father, a Guyanese emigre and retired Marine first sergeant, made many sacrifices so I could become the first in my family to attend college. 

I double-majored in psychology and biology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and graduated in 2022. Now, I’m earning a master’s in physiology at NC State, and I work at the Duke University Hospital as a certified nursing assistant in the pediatric oncology unit. 

While taking challenging classes as an undergraduate, I struggled with my mental health. After dealing with depression and anxiety, I finally opened up to my doctor and was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Understanding how my brain operates has helped decrease doubt in my learning capabilities and has better equipped me to accomplish my goals.

Young woman and her parents
Singh with her parents

Ashlyn V. Nix

Department of Crop and Soil Sciences
Degree Program: bachelor’s in agroecology and sustainable food systems, urban horticulture minor

I come from Stokesdale, North Carolina, a small town in Rockingham County. I knew I wanted to attend college as early as the sixth grade. My high school teacher, Mr. Bell, introduced me to the world of horticulture, and it became my passion. 

My family struggles financially. In high school, we lived off of my grandfather’s singular income. Government assistance helped us escape food insecurity. When I applied to college, I knew I needed a scholarship to avoid putting myself and my family in debt. I had almost given up all hope of attending college, but the Pack Promise Scholarship program offered me a full ride to NC State.

When I arrived at NC State, I knew nothing. I didn’t know how to navigate the campus, how to sign up for classes or secure on- or off-campus housing. There are so many things that I had to learn myself because my parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents had never gone to college.

Young woman with glasses holding a boa constrictor
Nix draped with a boa constrictor at the Tannenbaum Historic Park in Greensboro.
College students posing with college mascots.
Nix and friend Lauren Turner posing with Ms. and Mr. Tuffy on the Day of Giving in Stafford Commons in 2023.

Nicole Martinez-Avila

Prestage Department of Poultry Science
Degree program: bachelor’s in poultry science 

I come from a small town in North Carolina called Dudley, and I knew I wanted to attend college from fifth grade. I transferred from Wayne Community College in Goldsboro, North Carolina. My parents cried and hugged me when I told them I was accepted to NC State. Currently, I’m a sophomore majoring in poultry science. 

I had to overcome self-doubt and the fear of leaving home. My first few weeks at NC State were difficult. But I overcame these challenges. I never imagined being an NC State student, but now I know I can do whatever I want if I work hard enough. My family is honestly my biggest blessing. I don’t know where I would be if it were not for them pushing me to always strive for more!

Young woman standing on a green lawn with a wolf mascot in striped overalls
Martinez-Avila with Mr. Tuffy in front of the Talley Student Center

Victoria Yell

Department of Plant and Microbial Biology
Degree Program: doctorate in plant biology 

I lived near a greenway in Austin, Texas, and spent most of my time in nature. In high school, I learned about climate intervention and knew it was a cause I wanted to contribute to. 

Neither of my parents completed a four-year degree, and both had jobs with limited upward mobility. They recognized my interest in the sciences from a young age and knew I needed to attend college to pursue it. They encouraged me to do the necessary work to go to college, and I relied on older college friends for advice. 

I studied biochemistry and genetics at Texas A&M University before coming to NC State for graduate school.

There are many aspects of applying for and attending college that require insider knowledge. Because of my scarcity mindset, I focused on getting into a school that had a good reputation but didn’t consider factors like the school’s location or career development opportunities. This was one of the most striking moments of realizing the opportunity cost, both real and self-imposed, that comes with being a first-generation student.

Dog, man and woman in front of a stream in the woods
Yell, her partner Stephen and their dog Lana hiking in Western North Carolina.

Harry Ervin

Department of Plant and Microbial Biology
Degree Program: doctorate in plant biology

I knew I wanted to attend college from a very young age. Most of the obstacles I faced were financial or emotional. I experienced feelings of guilt associated with leaving home, no longer supporting my family and pursuing my goals. 

I grew past the guilt by building a community with other first-generation students. They had dreams and passions that led them to pursue higher education, yet none of them were bad people. 

Over time, our community helped me realize that I’m not a terrible person and that my dreams are worth pursuing. 

For any other first-generation students, find a community that supports you. It makes all the difference.

Young man and black dog on the beach
Ervin on the beach with his dog
Young man standing at the base of a redwood tree.
Ervin in Humboldt Redwoods State Park in California

Kaley Lawing ’16

Departments of Animal Science and Agricultural and Human Sciences
Degree program: master’s in agricultural and extension education

I grew up in the town of Robbins, North Carolina, on my family farm, where we raised beef cattle and horses, grew a large garden and harvested many acres of hay. My late grandfather influenced my love for agriculture and animal science.

My father was a single parent and worked long hours in construction. He taught me the value of hard work and dedication. He believed that education would give me opportunities for my future. 

I’m grateful for the financial aid I received and for the advisors who helped me through the process. I received scholarships (some of them local) and federal grants. I also worked at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine through a federal work-study grant. The job provided additional college funding, skills-building and internship opportunities.

I received my bachelor’s in animal science in 2016. Currently, I’m an Extension agent for 4-H youth development in Moore County. I’m also in my final semester of graduate school at NC State for a master’s in agricultural and extension education. 

Lawing was inspired by her family farm to pursue a career in agriculture.
Lawing was inspired by her family farm to pursue a career in agriculture.

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.

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