As a high school student in Columbus County, Shiana Thomas hoped to become a doctor so that she could help people. But one day, her physics professor asked whether she had considered a career as an engineer.
“My answer was no, because engineering was scary,” she said.
Less scary than she imagined. A few twists and turns later, inspired by that teacher’s encouragement to explore possibilities, Thomas graduated cum laude from NC State in May 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering and management. Almost immediately, she began work as an office engineer in Greenville for Rodgers Builders Inc. Scholarships made her journey to helping people — in a different way — possible.
“All of my years at NC State were completely paid for by scholarships and financial-aid grants,” Thomas said. “That has been a great blessing.
“I received scholarships from the College of Engineering (COE) and a few Native American scholarships,” she added. “I was pretty surprised and honored when I found out about the COE scholarships. Knowing that someone wanted to invest in me made me work harder.”
Finding Her Path
Thomas, who earned two associate degrees alongside her 2012 high school diploma at Southeastern Early College High School, on the campus of Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, planned as a teenager to attend UNC-Chapel Hill in preparation for medical school. But although family members pledged some support, financing higher education was going to be a challenge. She began aiming instead toward a small private college that offered a full scholarship.
She continued to consider that engineering suggestion, though. Conversation in the checkout line of the grocery store where she worked part-time provided more food for thought. A customer chatted about his interesting work in ergonomics and the design of spaces. At the last minute, Thomas applied to NC State in the sciences.
“I had never intended to go to NC State, but I decided to challenge myself,” she said. “Man, was it one of the best choices I’ve made.”
She ended up entering the university in engineering. Eventually, after working in an engineering research lab the summer after she arrived on campus and later as an administrative assistant to a professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, she chose her field.
“I think civil engineering gives you more opportunities to help people,” Thomas said. “That’s pretty cool — to help people and communities get buildings and resources that they need.”
She also appreciated the construction management curriculum’s grounding in broad real-world skills such as accounting, scheduling, planning and structural design.
Life with the Pack
Thomas found a strong community spirit at NC State, along with a knowledgeable and supportive faculty, and a range of opportunities. “At college, the world seems right at your fingertips,” she said.
Private support helped put the world there, with international experiences that strengthened her independence, ability to relate to others and even study habits. Thomas spent a summer studying civil engineering at the Prague Institute in the Czech Republic, partially supported by a Chancellor’s Study Abroad Scholarship through the University’s Greatest Needs Fund. She built houses with the Fuller Center on Alternative Service Break in Nicaragua, an experience that helped confirm her career path.
As a senior, Thomas received one of four General Henry Hugh Shelton Leadership Awards given by the Office of Outreach and Engagement. Her campus involvement included the University Scholars Program, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, Associated General Contractors of America and National Association of Home Builders. She served as a program director for the Department of Multicultural Student Affairs’ Peer Mentor Program, held a research assistantship in the Constructed Facilities Lab and completed an engineering internship at Metcon Inc. In the community, she volunteered with Wake County Habitat for Humanity and with the Wake County Indian Education Program.
“Coming from a small town, the exposure and experiences I had at NC State were nothing I could have dreamed,” Thomas said. “People from all walks of life, all cultures, all socioeconomic classes — everybody. The stories and times they shared inspired me to never stop learning.”
Also inspiring? Donors who support scholarships and other programs. “Your investments are more than just monetary,” Thomas said. “NC State has really shaped me into who I am.
“Time at college, even outside of the classroom, teaches you so much about yourself and others. It teaches you how to work hard and know that you will fail sometimes, but that’s OK. Cry for a minute and keep going. It teaches you to reach out and find the resources you need.”
Ripple effects from her NC State experience have touched her Buckhead community and the broader Native American community. (Thomas is both Lumbee and Waccamaw Siouan.) Her sister was inspired to apply successfully to the NC School of Science and Mathematics, many young people ask her questions about higher education opportunities and neighbors often comment on their enjoyment of Facebook photos from her trips abroad.
Thomas hopes her story encourages others to dream bigger and aim higher.
“My education has made me realize how fortunate I am,” she said. “My scholarships have shown me that giving back makes a difference. Over time, that difference has the power to change the world. … What better way to improve someone’s quality of life than to give them an education?”