For Julia O’Brien, “scholarship program” doesn’t begin to describe NC State University’s Caldwell Fellows.
That phrase is far too narrow for a life-changing community and network, said O’Brien, a sophomore who is also a Benjamin Franklin Scholar pursuing degrees in both the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (Spanish) and the College of Engineering (chemical engineering with a biomanufacturing concentration).
“Because of the Caldwell Fellows, I’ve had the support to explore my identity and leadership. I’ve had access to influential and wise mentors who have helped to make me feel more centered in all aspects of my life. I’ve had the opportunity to experience diversity in a way I never had before.”
“I’ve gained perspective. I’ve found my best friends. Most importantly, I found a family.”
O’Brien arrived at NC State from West Grove, Pennsylvania, a small town about an hour outside Philadelphia, with a strong background in math, science and problem solving. Her older sister, Jenna, is a senior at Virginia Tech and Julia, too, wanted to experience a different region of the United States. She fell in love with NC State – its academic programs, location near Research Triangle Park and even the weather – on a campus visit.
The university has presented her with many opportunities to discover and explore her passions.
A trumpet player since fifth grade, she’s a proud member of the NC State Marching Band, which she calls another great community on campus. She also has been involved in the university’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. During spring break 2017, O’Brien participated in the first assessment trip for the Guatemala Water Systems Project.
“We took water samples, even incubating E. coli tests on our own bodies, surveyed the land and interviewed the community members. It was an awesome way to combine my Spanish and chemical engineering majors,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work toward helping the Caserio Panhux community have access to clean water. International and sustainable development is such an important topic, and I’m thankful to have been able to have this exposure my first year.”
And then there’s the Caldwell Fellows Program, which O’Brien learned about while carpooling with one of its members to volunteer at a local elementary school.
“She told me all about Caldwell and how it had been so life-changing for her, and she encouraged me to apply,” O’Brien said. “What really stuck out was how she never mentioned it was a scholarship. She focused so much on the actual program benefits that I knew that what Caldwell could provide meant more than any monetary value.”
Those Caldwell benefits include increased self-confidence.
Last May, O’Brien participated in the program’s wilderness trip in the Collegiate Peaks of Colorado. Her group braved subfreezing temperatures and three feet of snow that fell over eight days.
“The views were incredible, and I feel like after completing that trip anything is possible. If I can hike through a blizzard with 60-mile-per-hour winds, I can definitely stay up a few more hours to study for a hard test,” she said. “The trip undoubtedly changed my perspective.”
In the fall, O’Brien took part in Caldwell’s sophomore seminar, focused on servant-leadership and its application. O’Brien worked on a service-learning team with five other Caldwell Fellows and two teaching assistants in an after-school program for grades K-12 at nonprofit Neighbor to Neighbor in southeast Raleigh. The team mentored, assisted with homework and taught enrichment classes on topics including college and career prep.
“Our purpose was essentially to serve as role models, and show our students that if they work hard and set goals, they can achieve anything. It was a challenging experience for sure but so incredibly rewarding,” O’Brien said.
The fall seminar experience also included work with professional leadership coaches and a reflective assignment to craft a personal philosophy of leadership.
For O’Brien, 2018 is proving to be a whirlwind.
Thanks to support from a Caldwell stipend, she is studying abroad this semester in Granada, Spain. In addition to taking courses toward her degree in Spanish and growing more fluent in a language she began learning in middle school, she’s working for a nonprofit called Fundación Albihar. The organization focuses on the development and cultural identity of different social groups, especially the elderly and children at risk.
She’ll return to the United States four days before reporting to a summer internship in research and development for the baby and feminine care sector at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio. For the fall semester, she’ll continue pursuing the chemical engineering side of her studies, in a co-op position with Eastman Chemical in Kingsport, Tennessee.
O’Brien is weighing a range of career options, largely thanks to her extraordinary NC State and Caldwell Fellows experiences.
“To prospective donors, please consider donating. You won’t be disappointed knowing how much your time and support is influencing and molding someone to reach their full potential,” she said. “Our donors are such a crucial part to making this program what it is, and I can’t thank them enough for how much it has already impacted me in this short year.”