Taking the Lead

Abel Walker on bench near trees

For senior Abel Walker, the opportunities offered by the Caldwell Program have "changed everything" about his college experience.

For plant biology major Abel Walker, one of the most fulfilling parts of attending NC State has been developing his leadership skills through the Caldwell Fellows Program. When he describes his path to the university and the program, it is clear that his potential stood out to many along the way.

First, there was the encouragement of his aunt and uncle in Thomasville, who raised him. “They’re very hard-working people. They’re the type to say, ‘You’re going to school if you can.’ They always pushed me,” Walker said.

Also providing a strong nudge was Charlene Marsh ’91, who, in addition to teaching chemistry, never missed a chance to talk to her students about attending NC State. Another high school teacher was a former Caldwell Fellow who felt Walker would be a good fit for the program. He hadn’t been accepted to NC State yet, though, and didn’t give it too much thought at the time.

Walker researched the Caldwell program after his adviser in the First Year College suggested he should apply, and he found that that it wasn’t what he expected. While strong academic credentials were important, he appreciated the focus on helping Fellows develop into better leaders.

When he was accepted, he said, “That changed everything. I’d be telling a different story about how cool it’s been to be in school without that program. It’s not just the funding aspect, but the amount that’s been invested in me for my own leadership.”

Opportunities afforded by the Caldwell Fellows Program take many forms, from attending the Center for Creative Leadership – a Greensboro-based seminar for executives but open to Caldwell Fellows – to solving personal challenges.

After his first year at NC State, Walker was offered a full-time job for the summer working for the lab of Dr. Todd Wehner, professor of horticultural science, but lacked transportation. Through a stipend provided by the program, he was able to get a bicycle. The bike allowed him to commute and offered a physical challenge: a 10-mile roundtrip ride during the hottest time of year, on top of long days working outdoors. “That was one of the most important experiences I’ve had,” Walker said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Caldwell.”

The Caldwell Fellows Program has also helped Walker challenge his notion of leadership and service. Previously, he defined service through a lens of meeting practical needs. After a project focusing on using local gardens to combat food insecurity wasn’t as successful as he hoped, he realized that education, such as hosting an event on campus to facilitate discussion about hunger, was also an important component of service.

“The support given to the program has enabled us to do unbelievable things at the undergraduate level. Without leadership [of Caldwell donors] – which is easily overlooked in their contribution – none of this would be possible.”

A senior, Walker has several ideas in the works for post-graduate employment. He is creating a business plan for a mushroom farm, an idea that grew out of his gardening service projects in the Caldwell Fellows Program. Walker had been hired to grow gourmet mushrooms for vegetarian and vegan dishes in restaurants in the Raleigh area, and he discovered that local chefs in Randolph County have similar needs. He plans to move back home to start his mushroom business, but in the immediate future, he hopes to work in the biotechnology field in the Research Triangle Park area.

No matter what path his career takes, he is confident that his experiences in the Caldwell Fellows Program will benefit him both personally and professionally for years to come.

“I think the Caldwell Fellows is one of the best things a donor could decide to invest in,” Walker said.  “It’s life-changing. If the point of giving to the university is to see students become better professionals and better leaders in their community, that is achieved by the Caldwell Fellows Program.”