Layne Baker is a first-generation college student from rural North Carolina who wants others in a similar situation to know that college is attainable for them as well.
Baker was born and raised outside of Sanford. His high school agriculture teacher pointed him toward NC State, and it didn’t take Baker long to figure out that it was the place for him.
“NC State was close to home, and I felt comfortable every time I came to campus,” he said.
Baker was named a Caldwell Fellow during his first year on campus. The Caldwell Fellows program, building on the legacy of the university’s longtime Chancellor (1959-1975) John T. Caldwell, provides financial support and more for NC State students who demonstrate a passion to learn, grow and serve others.
And serve others, Baker did. Within three months of his acceptance to the Caldwell program, he was on a plane to Mexico – only his second time flying – as part of Caldwell Fellows Service Mexico, an annual trip focused on service and global learning.
He returned from that trip motivated to do more, and do it closer to home.
“That trip inspired me to think about the issues that are happening here in North Carolina,” Baker said. “NC State is a land-grant university, with a mission to serve its constituents in the state.”
Within the Caldwell program and with the support of the program, Baker and another Caldwell Fellow, Katherine Stubbs, started Service NC, a monthlong summer program at Siler City Elementary School. Through Service NC, a group of Caldwell Fellows teach a curriculum designed by teachers at the school to improve literacy rates and STEM skills in fourth- and fifth-graders, he said.
“I grew up near Sanford, but on the Chatham County side (where the school is located),” Baker said. “I was able to take my experiences at NC State and resources I found here back home to really make an impact there.”
When Baker was growing up, he had a number of well-educated role models in his community, but he said college enrollment doesn’t necessarily feel attainable when it’s not a conversation that’s happening at home. Service NC is modeled to start that discussion about college with students at a younger age.
“We can have a conversation about what comes beyond school, that there is something greater than Siler City for these students,” he said. “I want them to know that there is more out there that can be achieved.
“I think if we start that conversation young, it just stays on their minds throughout the years.”
On the last day of the program, leaders brought the 60 Siler City Elementary students who participated to NC State’s campus, Baker said.
“Talking to their teachers post-experience, some of the data that we got was that students were already talking about how they wanted to go to NC State,” he said.
Baker calls the Caldwell Fellows experience the most impactful part of his time in college.
“It gave me the community that I needed,” he said.
While Caldwell Fellows are not selected until after they’ve enrolled at the university, Baker said NC State’s support in finding him the financial aid to afford college was a big part of why he chose the university in the first place.
“Being first generation, I was very nervous about how I was going to be able to pay for college,” Baker said. “NC State’s ability to help me find scholarships and to provide scholarships through the university is really what drove me to decide to come here.”
Baker graduates this December with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science and plans to find work where he will be able to further his ambition to serve others.
“That’s my number-one motivation in the world – to be in a position to give back and do good for others,” he said.
He interned in New York City this past summer, working on diversity and inclusion initiatives at a bank. His hope is to return to New York to live as he continues to interview for jobs. Baker said his ultimate goal is to be involved in a company’s social responsibility efforts.
Reflecting on his time at NC State, Baker easily makes the connections between experiences that helped him realize his goals – from working with a nonprofit foundation in Mexico that first summer, to leading a service project funded by a foundation the next summer, to working on initiatives at the bank in New York that will help others continue in service.
“The support from NC State and Caldwell allowed me to slowly, over time, build on this dream and vision that I had to do good in the world,” he said. “I was able to see it all come to life.”