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Caldwell Fellows Honor Five Decades of Impact

The numbers say a lot: 1,343 alumni; 78 current Fellows; 50 years.

And yet, those numbers don’t begin to tell the full story of the impact over the past five decades of the Caldwell Fellows at NC State University. To this day, Caldwell Fellows and alumni of the program continue to be change-makers locally, nationally and around the world.

They’re people like Mark Clapp, a 2007 graduate in textile and biomedical engineering. He’s now a Maternal-Fetal Medicine Fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he has taken the lessons of leadership and service to others from his years as a Caldwell Fellow and channeled them into his career.

“The Caldwell Fellows Program continually inspires me to think big and seek out leadership opportunities,” Clapp said. “As a physician and clinical researcher, I have devoted my career toward studying and improving maternal outcomes around childbirth, and ultimately working to influence and advance health policies affecting women’s health.”

As the program marks its 50th anniversary this year, it remains true to the vision of its namesake, John T. Caldwell, NC State’s chancellor from 1959 through 1975, by bringing together a group of students each year who, as expressed on the Caldwell Fellows website, “share a passion to learn, grow and serve others.” The program encourages scholars to “Think BIG,” a concept that builds on Caldwell’s legacy.

“He’s our role model,” said Janice Odom, director of the Caldwell Fellows. “He’s a figure that has been inspirational to many across campus.”

Today’s Caldwell Fellows Program is the product of a merger of two earlier programs, Odom said. In 1968, the Smith Richardson Foundation in Greensboro founded five leadership development programs across university campuses, providing funding for the North Carolina Fellows program at NC State. Ten years later in 1978, the Caldwell Scholars Program, NC State’s first merit-based scholarship program, was established to honor Caldwell’s retirement. The two eventually merged to create what is known today as the Caldwell Fellows.

Gerald Hawkins led the program as director for 35 years, followed by Odom, who has served as director for 15 years.

Currently, Caldwell Fellows receive $6,000 annually – $4,200 toward tuition and a $1,800 stipend for experiential learning. It’s NC State’s longest running scholarship opportunity, and it wouldn’t be possible without support from hundreds of donors. While endowment-level gifts of $250,000 or more have sustained the program by providing steady annual proceeds, small gifts, even $20, add up and make a lasting difference.

The Caldwell Fellows Program today differs from many scholarship programs, in that students are not eligible based on their high school grades or test scores. Instead, the program encourages students to apply during their freshman year at NC State, and seeks out students with not only outstanding intellect, but characteristics such as curiosity, humility, integrity and gratitude, Odom said. Roughly 300 students apply annually to be Caldwell Fellows, and about 10 percent of those applicants are selected.

While some things about the program have changed over 50 years, some have remained the same.

“What hasn’t changed is our founding mission,” Odom said. “What has evolved is how we’re able to realize that mission.

“The educational opportunities; the experiential learning – we’ve been able to deepen all of that through our alumni and other engagement.”

Pushing Past Their Limits

Immediately after selection as Caldwell Fellows, freshmen are welcomed into the program and encouraged to challenge themselves. Each Fellow can choose to use his or her first stipend immediately for a summer experience following freshman year.

The sophomore year experience is focused on a “Learn to Serve” theme. Each student enrolls in the Caldwell Fellows seminar during the fall semester and, at the same time, works one-on-one with a personal executive coach to craft his or her own philosophy of leadership and create a personal development plan.

Junior year, the theme advances to “Serve to Lead,” in which students are expected to assume a leadership role within the program, while the senior year theme “Lead to Serve,” builds upon that leadership role and continues to infuse concepts such as civic engagement and service-leadership into the Fellows’ experiences.

This summer, for example, a team of Caldwell Fellows will work in Siler City, in nearby Chatham County, Odom said. They’ll launch a summer reading, math and science enrichment program for students at Siler City Elementary School with the goal of helping students avoid the loss of information that happens over the summer while school is not in session, she said. This kind of project highlights the importance of the funding of the Caldwell Fellowship, she said.

“All of the Fellows in Siler City have given up an opportunity to make income this summer for this service,” Odom said. “If we want students to do these things, we also have to help support them.”

All Caldwell Fellows participate in service-learning teams, which serve as the lab experience of the Caldwell sophomore seminar, according to the Caldwell Fellows website. Each semester, there are six distinct projects from which to choose. One ongoing project is the SATELLITE camp, where Fellows bring high school sophomores from rural North Carolina to NC State for a five-day residential camp in STEM education.

Each summer, Fellows are encouraged to use their experiential learning stipends to venture out of their comfort zones and undertake new challenges.

One such Caldwell-led experience is the Wilderness Challenge. Each year, group of Caldwell Fellows, guided by a volunteer staff of wilderness leadership-certified Caldwell alumni, take part. They spend 10 days backpacking in the wilderness, where they confront challenges and push themselves.

Current Caldwell Fellow Akshatha Kiran, a senior majoring in biochemistry, talked about the benefits of the Wilderness Challenge. She describes herself as petite, and recalled carrying a backpack that was heavy for her small frame. During the trip, the group ended up stuck in a blizzard with snow up to her waist.

“I don’t strike you as the girl who would be climbing mountains,” Kiran said. “I never would have imagined myself there. But it helped push me, and helped me see how far I could really go.”

Honoring the Past, Looking to the Future

The Caldwell Fellows Program was also the home of one of the first study abroad programs at NC State, Odom said, and continued to expand those offerings over the years. This summer, a group of Caldwells will travel to Romania at the invitation of an alumnus who is there on a fellowship, she said.

“As the world has changed, we’ve tried to adapt the learning methods of the program to meet the demands of global leadership,” Odom said.

Jessie Birckhead, who graduated in 2009 with a degree in fisheries and wildlife management from the College of Natural Resources, now lives in Durham and works as a wildlife biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. She considers her experience as a Caldwell Fellow to be the most meaningful part of her time at NC State.

“As a student, the Caldwell Fellows community was a place where I could stretch and grow and challenge my own beliefs and values,” she said. “My experience as a Caldwell Fellow was the most impactful part of my time at NCSU, and I think that is a common experience among alumni– that is why so many alumni stay engaged and connected to the program.”

In fact, as the program looks to increase funding and to expand student opportunities in the coming years, those alumni experiences will be one central focus. The program is looking to improve the alumni network and to provide more robust mentoring experiences between current Fellows and alumni.

What’s more, as annual expenses continue to rise for students, additional private support will expand support on a per student basis, Odom said.

“The amount of funds that students get per student – it’s not small but it’s not substantial,” Odom said. “We serve a number of students for whom these tuition resources are critical to being able to afford their NC State education.

“But what our alumni uniformly stress as most transformative are the robust experiences and deep relationships that have characterized this program for 50 years.”