Cultivating Community

The graduating class at Deirdre An’s small Charlotte high school included just 100 students, so it’s understandable that the transition to a college campus of more than 33,000 might have seemed a little daunting.

But having her own community of Park Scholars within the larger NC State University community made all the difference to An.

“By the time we finished (the Park Scholars) freshman retreat, we all were really great friends and I felt like I had a little family of my own,” she said of the summer before her first semester at NC State. “They were very motivating and very positive.”

This week, An is graduating with bachelor’s degrees in environmental sciences and plant biology. That sense of community she immediately found within the group of Park Scholars still rings true.

“A lot of my friends that I met at NC State helped me gain experience, and reflect on what I want to do, and what makes me happy. They were also there to support me when times were tough,” she said.

Beyond the friendships she cultivated, that supportive community has allowed An to cultivate a passion for making an impact on people and communities in general. After experiences on campus that allowed her to explore her own identity, and experiences near and far that impacted others, An is looking toward a future of affecting positive change.

“Ideally, any work I do will have a lasting, environmentally sustainable impact,” she said. “I actively look for opportunities to see how I can improve a situation for the environment.”

Named for the late Roy H. Park, a 1931 NC State alumnus who created the charitable Park Foundation, the Park Scholarships program was established in 1996 thanks to a grant from that foundation. The Park Scholarship covers costs associated with tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, travel and personal expenses. It also offers grants to fund professional and personal enrichment experiences, as well as leadership, mentoring, civic engagement and seminar opportunities.

During her freshman year, An and other Park Scholars met weekly for leadership development classes, one of which was a leadership and diversity academy – something she enjoyed so much, she served as an academy facilitator in each of the years since.

“It helped me explore my individuality and cultural background, and come to terms with how I can be a more inclusive person,” she said.

Park Scholars also collaborate in small groups on a yearlong project with local nonprofits. An worked with the Well Fed Community Garden in Raleigh, helping develop a composting station as well as marketing tools to bring in more members of the local community.

She used Park enrichment grants for two trips that spoke to both her personal and professional interests, including a trip to the Bahamas with the University Scholars Program to learn about photography.

Later, An traveled to Ireland for a self-directed project exploring how the agricultural system in that country differs from that of the United States. She independently contacted farmers in Ireland, asking if they’d be willing to be interviewed for the project. In return, she volunteered in their local communities, in one instance teaching a seminar to a local elderly population.

But perhaps most impactful among her experiences was an internship with Heifer International, on a farm in Massachusetts. The global nonprofit, according to its website, works in more than 120 countries by training people in sustainable farming, helping farmers gain access to the market and empowering women with leadership skills, all with the goal of ending world hunger.

An said the internship, and her education at NC State, helped her realize that her true calling was in the service side of agriculture.

“(Heifer International) brought so many volunteers and interns with diverse backgrounds and a shared passion in finding food sovereignty for people on a global scale,” she said. “For many of my experiences there, it was the little things that stuck with me – such as putting together programs for children and seeing them enjoy it, building a fun community with other workers and volunteers, and implementing lasting projects.

“Heifer International gave me a sense of how a small community could accomplish big things.”

All of that said, it’s important to note that, had she not been named a Park Scholar, An likely still would have attended NC State.

“I knew I wanted to do something related to environmental science,” she said. “When choosing a major, I felt most at home at NC State because they really emphasized the environment, sustainability, and had the agricultural background. I didn’t even have to think too much about it – this is my dream school. I really wanted it.”

The pursuit of the Park Scholarship – including meeting Park Scholars and alumni who made an impression – simply sealed the deal.

An has already begun giving back to the program that’s meant so much to her, with several small gifts to the Park Scholarships Class of 2018 Legacy Endowment.

“During my finalist weekend, I met a lot of people who didn’t make it through,” An said. “I know we have a limited budget, and it really struck me that I have friends who were just as qualified, if not more so.”

Right after graduation, An will move to California to join E&J Gallo Winery, headquartered in Modesto. She’ll work as a viticulturist, researching and implementing processes to help vines produce grapes for making wine.

While her big West Coast move is nerve-wracking, An knows there’s a family of Park Scholars she can call on for help and advice.

“I’ve already been able to talk to people who are in California,” she said. “I’m nervous about moving, but one of the great things about the Park Scholarship Foundation is that we have a network of people everywhere.”

This post was originally published in Giving News.