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Stepping Out Front

Kalysha Clark sits in front of a window

As a teacher, Kalysha Clark Wall believes in the potential of every single one of her students at Fuquay-Varina High School.

That belief intertwines with the lessons the two-time NC State alumna learned herself as a first-generation college graduate.

“Potential alone isn’t enough,” Wall said. “You have to have opportunity and support, too.”

Her own opportunity to attend the university – earned through focus and determination – truly changed her life. Getting to campus, though, was just the first step in the struggle toward realizing her potential.

At times during her college years, Wall faced feelings of unworthiness, anxiety and even deep shame. They are, she said, commonplace among low-income and first-generation college students.

As she cleared each hurdle toward earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the journey helped her discover a new resolve: She began to step out front as an advocate for other NC State students like her. She spoke out, highlighting the need for greater resources and demonstrating that it’s OK to use them.

“Society puts a lot of negative emphasis on people who are struggling,” she said. “There are stigmas, labels and misconceptions. They’ll say you’re leeching or lazy and things like that, when you’re getting tired just fighting the battle. People look at you differently when they find out you’re on food stamps, for example.

Learning to replace embarrassment with pride took time. She clearly remembers shame flooding through her when classmates joked about skipping trips to Starbucks until their parents deposited money in their bank accounts, or fretted about waiting two weeks to get the newest iPhone.

She’d feel her face flush if someone asked, “Why don’t you ever go to basketball games? Don’t you like having fun?” Or each time she heard or read a declaration that no one could go hungry at college, after all, with so many restaurants, convenience stores and dining halls.

Wall would swallow hard. She would refocus on her goals, trying not to think about the three jobs she was juggling, her efforts to figure out where her next several meals would come from and even the worries that she was diverting resources from the rest of her family.

As she balanced all of this uncertainty with academics, Wall relied on staff and faculty mentors. She found a community and a life-changing support network through TRIO, a federally initiated suite of student services and outreach programs designed to ensure educational opportunity for all Americans, regardless of background.

And she met many other students navigating the same, and tougher, issues.

Some had aged out of foster care and had nowhere to go on academic breaks. Others worried about losing Medicaid benefits and making health center co-payments, navigating financial aid and transportation, or whether that one textbook might be the expenditure that finally broke them.

“What would you sacrifice to be able to take that amazing, career-changing unpaid internship?” Wall said. “Students face really hard choices all the time.”

But it wasn’t only the hidden pain that made Wall willing to serve as a public face for underresourced students. She drew inspiration, she said, from the strength and dignity of others persevering in a world of instant gratification and cynicism.

“It took a lot for me to be able to say I was poor. I started talking about it more because there are so many other students like me who are not in a place where they’re comfortable sharing or even asking for help,” Wall said. “You can’t look at a person and tell that they’re food insecure or in poverty or homeless. You don’t know how the person next to you might be suffering.

One advantage Wall had was strong emotional support from back home in Lexington, North Carolina. While some of her peers’ families might see school as a luxury, Wall’s viewed it as a chance to change the trajectory of generations.

No one in her immediate family had attended college. But her father, who suffered a severe work injury that took him years to overcome, and her mother – quite young when Wall and her two sisters were born – always encouraged hard work and the pursuit of higher education as a ticket to a better life. (Her mom eventually returned to school to earn an associate’s degree herself.)

“And I had really wonderful counselors at West Davidson High School, who knew my situation,” Wall said. “They did everything possible to help me — getting fees for tests and applications waived, and helping me with things that my family didn’t know how to do.”

Those things included searching for scholarships; between shifts waitressing at Sonic, she successfully applied for several small awards. Being chosen for Pack Promise, a program created to assist low-income students in meeting all of their financial needs through a combination of grants, loans and work-study jobs, helped get her to NC State.

“I’m eternally grateful for that,” she said.

As an undergraduate, Wall worked at places including Port City Java and the Poole College of Management, and she babysat often. Through TRIO, she led tours for high school students and voluntarily taught workshops on budgeting and meal planning (as a self-described coupon and spreadsheet queen).

People had often told a younger Wall that she could be a talented educator, but the skeptical animal lover arrived at NC State wanting to become a veterinarian. As a freshman zoology major in the College of Sciences and a member of Roots and Shoots conservation club, she realized she loved research more than medicine. She switched to a wildlife concentration.

“When I got here, my professors just did such amazing things,” she said. “At times in class, I would feel it was crazy for me to even be in that room. I was so thankful and excited.”

She participated in the Chancellor’s First-Year Student Leadership Program, completed an Alternative Service Break focused on hunger and homelessness in Raleigh, and did internships at Piedmont Wildlife Center, AniMall and the Nature Research Center at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in zoology in spring 2015, Wall spent 10 months serving with AmeriCorps as a guest stormwater educator in Piedmont North Carolina schools. Guess what?

She really loved teaching.

She returned to NC State and earned her master’s in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology from the College of Natural Resources in fall 2017. During graduate school, she enjoyed a paid summer research job at the University of Arizona, a research trip to the Bahamas and attendance at professional conferences in locations ranging from Kentucky to Sweden.

The ability to embrace such opportunities propelled her through the hard times, including moments when her shame and embarrassment became more direct. Once, for example, as Wall sat in a waiting room hoping to get her SNAP food benefits restored following an administrative snafu, a woman glanced at the laptop she was using to do school work and said, well, I guess you can’t really be poor.

The woman had no idea how much research and effort had gone into securing a loan as a high school student to buy that computer — a critical investment Wall hoped would get her through college.

Kalysha Clark Wall at Feed the Pack Food Pantry
Kalysha Clark Wall continues to advocate for services for underresourced students, such as Feed the Pack Food Pantry.

Today, she’s proud to share her story. She has been interviewed on National Public Radio, has spoken at events focused on food and housing insecurity and on behalf of initiatives like NC State’s Feed the Pack food pantry, and advocates for the importance of education. She has channeled all of it – the good and bad experiences, her academic passions and her drive to help others become successful – into her job teaching earth and environmental science and coaching the school cheerleading team.

“I bought my own house when I was 23. I bought my own car. It felt really good,” said Wall, who got married last fall.

And it felt good to find her voice. She’s excited about NC State’s efforts to increase need-based scholarships and other resources critical to helping students achieve their potential.

“Nothing good comes from comfort zones. Think and Do – for me, that’s about coming together to make something better. If you can’t meet your basic needs, how can you focus on success? Supporting students and giving kids the opportunity to see what they’re truly capable of, you’re really changing the world,” she said. “You’re changing the world.”

This post was originally published in Giving News.