Richelle Hollingshead clearly recalls the day she got her scholarship offer from NC State. When the envelope carrying that news arrived at her family’s house near Morehead City, her two older sisters were not home.
“But my mom and I both started screaming and running around,” she said.
More than a decade later, Hollingshead holds two NC State degrees and is a veteran of the nonprofit sector. Much of her journey would not have been possible without support from the Carol and Bob Mattocks University Scholarship, as well as smaller merit-based scholarships that she received.
Growing up in eastern North Carolina, Hollingshead gravitated toward mathematics and science. She focused on attending one of the state’s larger public universities. “The main thing determining where I would go to college, though, was money,” she said. “My mom didn’t have a lot of money. The Mattocks Scholarship sealed the deal.”
Hollingshead initially enrolled in aerospace engineering. Uncertainty over her career path led her to switch to a broader major in math.
Highlights of her undergraduate years included living in Alexander Hall, where she loved getting to know residents from other countries, and playing intramural sports such as soccer and Frisbee. Involvement in the campus chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship led to many of her closest friendships. An orientation retreat for freshman scholarship recipients from across campus established an important network, too.
One piece of advice for NC State students? Never pigeon-hole yourself, academically or otherwise. “I think I had a healthy balance,” Hollingshead said. “I love math because there’s always a real answer — something you’re actually working for and concrete systems and structures. But I also like things that are more wide open.”
Hollingshead found real purpose as a student volunteer at Neighbor to Neighbor Outreach, a small nonprofit serving lower-income families in southeast Raleigh. The organization’s stated mission is to build a community of hope, justice and compassion. It offers programs in education, employment, safe recreation and health. The experience proved eye-opening.
“It was a more urban setting than I was used to, and there are so many challenges and injustices that children face that I wasn’t even aware of,” Hollingshead said. “I had grown up poor, without much money, and I thought, ‘What’s the difference between me and these kids?’ But my poverty meant not being able to buy name-brand clothes. Theirs was a generational mindset and ongoing lack of opportunity.”
As graduation neared and she searched for jobs, Hollingshead learned that Neighbor to Neighbor needed someone to lead an after-school math program for at-risk students. Her future clicked into place.
“I’ve always had a passion for children — I think I’m kind of a big kid myself,” she said. “And I think I’ve always had a strong sense of justice and what’s wrong and right. I wouldn’t be using a lot of calculus in that job, but I would be using math and problem-solving skills, and I would be sharing my love of education with kids. Those relationships with families were something I could really pour into.”
Not everyone encouraged her nonprofit career choice, which “didn’t necessarily make economic sense,” she said. But without the financial burden of student loans, Hollingshead felt comfortable with a lower salary than she might have received elsewhere. After graduating summa cum laude with her math degree in 2005, she spent 10 years recruiting, training and coordinating volunteer tutors and mentors; advocating for education and for students in their schools; and supporting families — from making agency referrals, to providing rides to doctor’s appointments.
Hollingshead loved her work. After a few years, though, she wanted to learn how to better channel the nonprofit world’s vision and passion into consistent and structured processes, for stronger outcomes. A friend suggested NC State’s master of public administration program. She rejoined the Pack part-time and completed her MPA in December 2013.
In early 2015, for professional growth, Hollingshead made the difficult decision to try a different role. She took a job outside Philadelphia as chief operating officer for the nonprofit, nondenominational organization RedLetter Christians.
“We are basically a blog and a website with nearly 175,000 hits a month that educates and inspires people to live out the mission of Jesus Christ through service,” Hollingshead said. “It’s a really different platform for discussion of social justice issues and taking leadership for positive change in the world.”
Hollingshead is grateful for scholarships that gave her the freedom to focus on improving other people’s lives.
“Private support is what got me to NC State in the first place and gave me the ability to pursue what I was passionate about,” she said. “You never know the impact that your money is going to have, and you may never know. But I think education, and investing in people, is one of the best investments you could ever make.”