Tony Caravano remembers the assistance appearing almost by magic, at just the right time:
A small check from a family friend that helped pay his high school tuition.
A weekend job offered to one of his sisters and him.
And teammates’ parents pitching in to ensure that he wasn’t the only member of his basketball squad unable to attend summer team camp.
When the NC State alumnus and his two younger sisters were growing up in Palm Bay, Florida, being raised by a hard-working single mother, their community embraced them, Caravano said, and made sure they achieved their dreams of attending college. That same kind of community helped him thrive at NC State.
“It happened so often, people willing to help us here and there, and there were plenty of people at my school in Florida who really were no better off than we were,” he said. “It kept happening for me at NC State, and I wasn’t unique or rare. I found that everyone here helped each other.
“I had that feeling, from the first time I visited campus. That’s part of the reason I thought I belonged at State — and that I would make it work, in some miraculous way, as an out-of-state student. I’ve wanted to try and pay some of that back. I want other people to have opportunities and experiences like I had.”
Caravano, who earned his BA in criminology from NC State in 2004, now works for Amazon in Seattle. He’s senior content acquisition manager for Prime Video, leading the licensing of video content that can be bought or rented on Amazon platforms.
As the Caldwell Fellows Program, which meant so much to his college journey, honors five decades of impact this year, the time seemed right for Caravano to complete that circle of community and give back. He is establishing an endowment to support tuition, enrichment and leadership support for Caldwell Fellows, particularly those enrolled in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Caravano ended up at NC State largely because one of his elementary school teachers — an alumnus of the university — gave him an application during his junior year in high school. He became a finalist in the Park Scholarships program, deciding to attend NC State despite not being chosen.
He quickly learned about the Caldwell Fellows. Being accepted into the program made a tremendous impact — from a monetary standpoint and in personal development.
“I was financially maxing out — trying to pull together awards, grants, scholarship funds, work-study,” Caravano said. “At the core of my love for Caldwell is that it literally allowed me to stay at NC State when I could least afford it. Gratitude is a foundational value of the Caldwell and my life lessons in gratitude will never be forgotten.
“My gift is my expression of gratitude to all of those that have supported me and a nod to young people who will do tremendous things in the future.”
Being a Caldwell Fellow also enabled Caravano to study abroad in Florence, Italy, where he knew only one other person before arriving for a life-changing summer, and to complete an internship with an attorney who had a Supreme Court case in progress.
He already was becoming involved in student government — Wolf Aides, chair of the elections commission then member of the judicial branch — when he applied to Caldwell.
“I was clueless about what I was getting myself into, with student government,” he said. “I became an RA in Tucker [Residence Hall], which didn’t feel like a job because I loved trying to make everyone feel safe and included. Eventually friends and advisers talked me into running for student body president.”
He served two terms as president, as a senior and as a graduate student. Caravano took seriously his responsibility to represent students and their governments at UNC system campuses across the state. He spent hours talking to administrators, faculty, staff and legislators as well as students, and lobbying about issues including tuition affordability.
Caravano grew increasingly comfortable in that kind of role because of his Caldwell Fellows experience, led by then-director Gerald Hawkins.
“I really became enamored by what leadership meant. The Center for Creative Leadership experience that I had as a junior certainly was critical,” he said. That immersive program in Greensboro, which included UNC-Chapel Hill students too, featured a 360-degree evaluation and deep dive with a leadership coach.
“It helped me define how I could use my voice, as a 19 or 20 year old, and helped me figure out how to be comfortable doing so. I still reflect on the lessons,” Caravano said. “It’s such a lasting memory — just hearing myself on the tapes, talking through my values and being challenged by others about different situations, judgments and beliefs.”
The Caldwell Fellows Program shaped his goals and life direction. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences made him well rounded. Caravano held three jobs in the political sector before moving to Compass Group in 2010 and to Amazon in 2014.
“I really do credit both Caldwell and the college for so much, for pushing me out of my comfort zone and preparing me to be successful,” Caravano said.
Chosen as an Outstanding Young Alumnus in 2015, he is completing his second four-year term on the NC State Alumni Association Board of Directors. He mentors and provides career advice to students interested in NC State, Caldwell Fellows and recent graduates.
He hopes that his Caldwell endowment will support other students’ pursuit of their dreams. The timing of the commitment also carries a more personal element. One of Caravano’s sisters lost a baby last year, and his gift will honor the memory of his nephew James.
“What I would tell students is to live your life like you’re living for another person who wasn’t afforded the opportunities you have — who didn’t get the chance to do these things, who wouldn’t because they weren’t brave enough or who didn’t even realize what they could do,” Caravano said. “And I would tell Caldwell Fellows to share those extraordinary experiences, that appetite for development and growth and that concept of servant leadership, with their peers who aren’t lucky enough to be Caldwell Fellows.
“Always, always bring other people along for the ride.”