Jess Rotenberg ’07 Navigates Uncertainty and Finds Community

The Park Scholarships program has invited scholars from the Class of 2024 to interview Park alumni. This is part of a series of interviews that will be published throughout the year. Ryley Fallon ’24 was inspired by Jess Rotenberg’s story of finding ways to pursue passions and utilize skills at every stage of life.

My parents and I walked into the Park Class of 2024 Finalist dinner with the ability to count the number of times all of us had worn a blazer on a single hand. I seated myself between my mother and Jess Rotenberg ’07. We worked our way through steaks and bite-sized chocolate tarts while listening to the founder of the Krispy Kreme Challenge, Greg Mulholland ’07. I had to keep reminding myself that this was only dinner and not an interview. My parents and I didn’t take our first deep breath until Rotenberg said, “Don’t worry, we’re not on the Selection Committee.” I expected to leave dinner more nervous about my interview, but instead I left with Rotenberg’s email scribbled on a program.

Jess Rotenberg

Rotenberg cannot narrow her favorite memory of the Park Scholarships program down to a single instance. She prefers to emphasize a common thread through all her experiences: the opportunity for conversation.

“I learned I loved coffee after spending one afternoon a week having coffee with classmates freshman year. I remember late night walks across campus with fellow Park Scholars. I remember meeting the entire Class of 2012 on a retreat one year and some have remained close friends.”

Rotenberg graduated from NC State with a degree in microbiology and a passion for bacteria and viruses. After being diagnosed with chronic fatigue right out of college, Rotenberg’s future did not go as she had imagined in college. She spent five years working at the North Carolina State Crime Lab in the forensic biology section. She then became a part-time professional photographer while raising her two children, now six and eight.

Rotenberg family

Now unable to work as a result of her disability, Rotenberg embraces her role as an “accidental leader” in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, using her background in science and experiences of spending time at home due to her condition to bring information to her community.

“People crave reliable information and community and it means a lot to me that I have been able to create that. I didn’t expect to be the ‘friendly neighborhood microbiologist’ but leadership is needed in the strangest places sometimes.”

Similar to the unexpected twists of career path, Rotenberg believes the Park pillars of scholarship, leadership, service, and character play a role in her life in ways she did not anticipate. In terms of scholarship, she has become an avid reader of books and articles that encompass her love of history. She recently finished Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino. 

Service and character play a larger role in her life as Rotenberg has a strong commitment to social justice and dismantling systemic racism. Rotenberg is excited to see the increased focus in diversity-related education within the Park program and believes that Park alumni can play a major role in helping navigate these actions. She acknowledges that an understanding of different identity groups is vital for leaders in any capacity.

“My partner is transgender and I identify as queer, so we find ourselves fighting homophobia and transphobia regularly. I read recently that less than 20% of Americans have ever met a trans person. We are unapologetically ourselves even when that makes other people uncomfortable.”

Rotenberg has witnessed the success that has come from Park Scholars collaborating over the last twenty-five years, such as the Krispy Kreme Challenge, started by members of her class. She is excited to see what impact Park Scholars will make on their community in the coming years.

As scholars begin or continue their journey at NC State, Rotenberg emphasizes the fact that “grown-ups” still deal with uncertainty at every point in their careers and personal lives, a calming message that has become even more relevant in times of a public health crisis and social unrest. Rotenberg’s story is a reminder that personal passions and values can be pursued in any stage of life or set of circumstances.

“You’ll feel like an imposter for much of your adult life. One day, you’ll look at your key to a car or your front door and maybe a partner or child in your home and you’ll just stand there dumbfounded and think, ‘who authorized my application for adulthood?’”

After speaking with Rotenberg over dinner, I realized that despite how my interview went the next day, I would still find fulfillment in whatever the future brought me. Uncertainty will always be a part of life, but now I have an entire Park community to help me navigate whatever comes next.