A sunflower adorning the top edge of Samantha Casey’s NC State University graduation cap on Saturday honored childhood memories. (She grew sunflowers during summers with her grandparents, and her parents run a garden center.)
At the bottom edge, the logo Hanesbrands, Inc. indicated her soon-to-be employer in the apparel world.
And spanning the red area between past and future, five words: “On to the next adventure.”
Just as Casey fit a lot of story onto her cap, she fit a lot of adventure into her college career.
The former valedictorian of Johnston County’s Princeton High School graduated from NC State over the weekend with a degree in textile engineering and minors in industrial engineering and business administration.
Casey enjoyed being a Shelton National Leadership Scholar through the Shelton Leadership Center and a Centennial Scholar in the College of Textiles. Both programs changed her life, she said, with leadership development, professional and career development, and service-learning opportunities – on top of financial support.
“Going to NC State was always a dream of mine,” she said. “Without scholarship support, I wouldn’t have been able to attend NC State for all four years. My parents, as small business owners, and I are tremendously, tremendously thankful for the support.
“My scholarships have provided more than I ever imagined, though. Coming in, I knew they were taking a financial burden off, but they have meant so much more. When I wanted to study abroad, serve the community, or anything I could think of, there were people there to say, ‘great, let’s figure out how you can do that.’”
Thanks to her scholarships, Casey studied abroad in Germany. She also completed educational and service programs in Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands and the Dominican Republic.
She enjoyed the “incredible experience” of annual dinners with General H. Hugh Shelton, the Shelton Leadership Center’s founder and namesake, and his wife Carolyn in their home. She completed weekend service projects – ranging from clearing land for a nature trail to building solar lights – in eastern North Carolina with other Shelton Scholars.
Casey interned with NC State Executive Education and with the licensing department at Biltmore For Your Home. The latter opportunity followed a partnership program between the Shelton Center and the Biltmore Center for Professional Development that she attended in Asheville, where industry leaders focused on personal values and leadership ethics.
“It seems like every organization promotes leadership, but the Shelton Center is unique,” Casey said. “It promotes values-based leadership. It means the world to be part of an organization whose people live by the values of honesty, integrity, diversity, social responsibility and compassion. Both the Shelton and Centennial groups encourage us to develop our personal values and live them out in every aspect of our lives.”
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“It was wonderful,” she said. “It was a huge independence builder for me. The Shelton Challenge really teaches you to take initiative and seek opportunities, not just accept what comes easily.”
She loved the Challenge so much, she returned as a staff member. Her younger brother became a participant. “Helping students grow through the program has been such a meaningful way to give back. I think the Challenge can be the first time you start to be treated as an adult who can take ownership of your life,” she said.
A cousin had been a Centennial Scholar, and Casey learned about the Shelton National Scholarship during the summer program.
Thrilled when she was selected for both awards, she arrived on campus interested in medical textiles but soon realized that field wasn’t for her. An early course in data management in the College of Textiles sparked an interest in data analytics that she wove throughout her program.
She lived for two years in the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) Village and was active with Catholic Campus Ministry. She participated in several student organizations at her beloved College of Textiles, where her group’s senior design project involved flying to Honduras to work with Gildan on improving manufacturing plant processes.
One of the most memorable experiences proved to be Casey’s senior service project with the Shelton Leadership Center. She was part of the leadership team for the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s first Starry Night 5K run in Raleigh, held in September. It was particularly meaningful to help raise $25,000 for research – as a survivor.
Casey was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor at age 15 following a routine eye appointment.
“It was wonderful to have so much support from my family and my Shelton family for a cause so close to my heart,” she said.
In June, she’ll start her job as a retail planning analyst, specializing in outlet stores, with Hanes in Winston-Salem. A bonus will be reconnecting with music community friends there. Casey started playing fiddle at age 5 and, along with her father on banjo and other musicians, has performed bluegrass across the state at up to 60 shows a year; she understandably took a step back during her NC State career.
Overall, being an NC State student, and part of two supportive scholarship communities, was a blessing, Casey said – and an adventure that has prepared her well for her next chapter.
“The opportunities are here,” she said. “Seek them out and don’t be afraid to try.”