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Full-Time Student. And Parent. And Extension Employee. And…

CALS Poultry Science Extension's Dannica Wall and Marissa Herchler

Editor’s Note: National statistics show that “non-traditional” is increasingly the norm for students across the United States – in just one example, 75 percent of graduate students also work at least 30 hours a week. Over the next few months, we’re highlighting some of our own amazing multi-taskers across CALS. This is the first story in our series, Non-Traditional.

Twice a week, Ashe County Interim Extension Director Travis Birdsell hits Interstate 40 at 5:30 a.m. to make it to Raleigh for the 8:30 a.m. statistics class required for his masters’ degree in horticulture.

When their Extension work is done for the day in Scott Hall, Research Specialist Dannica Wall and Area Specialized Agent Marissa Herchler prioritize lending each other a hand on research trials as both work toward their Ph.D.s in poultry science.

NC 4-H Agent Monique Pearce-Brady
NC State Extension’s Monique Pearce-Brady and her family – her 4-year-old son sometimes “helps” her with her doctoral research.

And after a long day as Forsyth County’s 4-H youth development agent, Monique Pearce-Brady sits her four-year-old son on her lap at the computer to “help” her with her doctoral research in education.

With NC State’s options for employee tuition waivers and non-degree seeking education options, CALS’ culture of lifelong learning is strong in NC State Extension. Each worker’s life situation is different, but all have found ways to thrive during a process that can require stamina and sacrifice.

More than 75 percent of graduate students in the United States work at least 30 hours a week, according to a Georgetown University study from 2015. Nearly 20 percent of them have children.

Extension doesn’t track the number of employees who are pursuing higher education, but NC State Extension Associate Director Mike Yoder estimates that at any given time, we may have as many as 50 Extension employees working towards an advanced degree.  

“It’s very important to us that our employees receive the training and education they need and desire,” Yoder said. “The experience of pursuing a professional degree on a part-time basis is difficult, especially for those who drive long distances, have families and, like many of our employees, work long hours on a daily basis.

“The degree ultimately positions the individual for greater opportunities – and strengthens Extension in the process.”

How to stay “grounded, humble and sane”

The intense experience of juggling multiple roles comes with a perk: the chance to bond with others doing the same.

CALS Poultry Science Extension agent and student Dannica Wall
Poultry Science’s Dannica Wall makes sure to maintain a variety of extracurriculars outside of work and school to stay “grounded and sane.”

“Marissa and I lean on each other for support since we are both going through the same journey,” Wall said. “Being able to help one another keeps us grounded, humble and sane.”

In addition to her full-time Extension work, Ph.D. work and commute from Pittsboro, Herchler also makes time to volunteer for department programs and help with the Youth Market Poultry Show, the FFA poultry judging event, the North Carolina FFA Convention and the International Poultry and Processing Expo.

It’s a lot to juggle, but worth it, says Poultry Science’s Marissa Herchler: “You’re getting invaluable work experience and an amazing education at the same time.”

On top of all that, she has two new research grants through NC State’s DELTA program, plus one of the inaugural grants from NC State’s new Animal Food Nutrition Consortium to pursue her work on the use of artificial intelligence and neural networking to provide links between gene expression and performance parameters in turkeys.

Get tired reading just reading all that? Imagine how she feels living it. But it’s worth it, she said.

CALS Extension's Travis Birdsell
Travis Birdsell drove three hours to Raleigh for class twice a week for his horticultural science masters program while also serving as Ashe County interim Extension director – and father of two.

“You’re getting invaluable work experience and an amazing education at the same time,” Herchler said.

Maintaining so many roles is a challenge. During his time in graduate school, Birdsell and his wife had their first two children. Work-life balance took on new meaning.

“What I’ve come to realize is that, on a particular day, I have the ability to be great at something, but not everything. The trick is to make sure to give time to all my roles – student, father, worker – maybe not on the same day, but to make sure they all get attention,” Birdsell said. “And as we work through struggles, we realize that we can bend a lot more than we think before we break.”

Good for everyone

NC 4-H Agent Monique Pearce-Brady
“Don’t let fear be a hindrance in starting [your educational] journey,” Pearce-Brady says.
Employees say Extension is “extremely supportive” of continuing education. They also say they apply what they’re learning directly to their Extension duties.

Pearce-Brady is in her third year of a three-year doctoral program at Morehead State University. A first-generation college student herself, her capstone project seeks to understand the perspectives of first-year African-American students and the impact of a trio-themed living and learning community, especially on students of color who may be first-generation, from a low income family or have a disability.

At work each day, Pearce-Brady uses her ongoing training in instructional design to improve her youth program.

“The sky is the limit,” she said, “but it’s up to you what you want to accomplish.”

Why it’s worth it

So why put yourself through the long hours and extra work when you already have a perfectly good job?

Because it opens up possibilities, they say. And because it empowers you to better help those you serve.

“I believe it’s necessary to advance our own education in order to be able to advance our communities,” Birdsell said.

NC State Extension's Travis Birdsell and Family
When NC State Extension’s Travis Birdsell collects his degree, he and his family are planning the ultimate celebration: a trip to Disney World.

Birdsell will collect his masters’ in horticulture from NC State in May 2019.

So how do you celebrate when you finish a life-changing, multi-year education marathon?

“I know it’s cliche,” said Birdsell, “but I’ll probably go to Disneyland. That’s what I’m most looking forward to: I’m going to stand at the front of the crowd and sing Frozen songs with my daughters as loud as I can.”

        Thinking of going back to school?

        You can do it, say our Extension employees. Here’s some of their best hard-earned wisdom:

  •      Know yourself. When writing a research paper, Pearce-Brady finds that she’s most productive at night. For Herchler, it’s right after lunch. There is no one-size-fits-all – pay attention to what works for you and do that.
  •      Be realistic. Don’t beat yourself up because you can’t give 100 percent to every priority every day, Birdsell cautioned. The key is to rotate regularly.
  •      Just do it. “Don’t let fear be a hindrance in starting that journey,” Pearce-Brady said. “We all fear the unknown, but just limit the naysayers around you and go for it. Anything is possible.”

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