When Starr Gibens ’22 appeared in a 2019 video interview to promote need-based scholarships and dedicated funds for underresourced students, she was focused on the empowering moment of coming to NC State as a first-generation college student.
“This was me saying, ‘My future is in my hands and this is what I’m going to do with it. I’m going to go to NC State, and I’m going to build a legacy through NC State,’” Gibens said.
Not quite halfway into her college career at the time, she might not have had a full picture of how her legacy would unfold. But when Starr Gibens — who is now a first-generation college graduate — says she’s going to do something, rest assured it is going to get done.
The Power of a Voice
Gibens arrived for her first year as a political science major with a list of things she wanted to accomplish and the idea that NC State would be one stop on her life journey. She knew she wanted to graduate but she could not picture what the finish line would truly look like.
Her to-do list was a mix of university traditions, like visiting the Free Expression Tunnel, and personal and professional goals. She wanted to study abroad, pursue internships, model in a fashion show and write something for one of the campus newspapers. She also aimed to start planning for possibilities after graduation, such as law school or working at the African American Policy Forum, based in New York.
By her sophomore year, Gibens had completed an internship with Common Cause NC, an organization focused on voting rights and gerrymandering reform, and started another with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. She added a second major, communications, and with the encouragement of Sarah Wright, assistant director of student support services at TRIO, she added another goal: host a podcast.
For a year, Gibens hosted Beyond the Belltower, a podcast that raises the voices of participants from NC State’s TRIO programs, which are federal programs designed to help students overcome class, social and cultural barriers to higher education.
Around the same time, NC State was focusing its Think and Do the Extraordinary Campaign fundraising efforts on increasing resources for need-based scholarships and helping students meet their basic food and housing needs. Gibens agreed to participate in a video that was intended to help launch a new scholarship initiative, as well as speak about the importance of these efforts at 2019’s Red and White Night, the university’s annual celebration of philanthropy.
Standing on a stage with four other student speakers, sharing how easy it is for first-generation students to feel lost in the shuffle at a university as large as NC State, had not been part of Gibens’ original plan. But the opportunity spoke to a certain part of her — and has helped form part of the legacy she has created.
When asked what inspired her to become an advocate for underresourced students, Gibens said, “Most of the time, all I’ve had is my voice, so it’s my responsibility to use it.”
In February 2020, her voice helped launch the Extraordinary Opportunity Scholarship Initiative (EOSI), which is aimed at increasing need-based support for low- to middle-income North Carolina students, those who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education, first-generation students and those from rural areas.
Since its launch, EOSI has supported 90 students, and the scope of that impact is significant for Gibens.
“Almost anything I do is not just for me,” she said. “I feel like things are not meaningful if it’s just for my own benefit. Being able to help other people and inspire others to help people is my life purpose. Helping with EOSI is special because it’s not just one scholarship and done.
“It’s something that’s changing students’ lives for a long time — so that they can come to NC State, so that they can graduate from college. So they can have the experiences I’ve had.”
More Than Words
Gibens knows firsthand how important scholarship support is, and the investment it represents. She has received the William T. Kretzer Family Scholarship, the Robert J. Pleasants Scholarship and the Angela C. Caraway and Family Scholarship.
Being part of the inaugural award group made the Caraway Scholarship even more meaningful.
“If you’re just starting something, it’s kind of setting the tone to say, this is the ideal applicant or this is the standard. That was really, really special to me. I was very honored,” Gibens said.
She recently had the opportunity to meet Angela C. Caraway, which she described as “like meeting a family member.” The two found a lot in common, and Caraway and Gibens’ mother even share a name.
Building these relationships has been an unexpected part of her NC State experience. In addition to Caraway, Gibens has also connected with alumni Dewayne and Adama Washington, who created the Dewayne and Adama Washington Scholarship at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“They’re like another set of parents,” she said. “Over the past two years, I would tell them, ‘This is what I hope to do,’ and now I can say, ‘This is what I am doing,’ and that’s been great.”
True to form, Gibens will next do exactly what she said she would. She was able to check both items off the post-graduation idea plan — she interned at the African American Policy Forum as a student and applied to law school. After receiving multiple acceptances and scholarship offers, she chose the school that had been her top choice: the University of Chicago, which she will enter in the fall. She is interested in civil rights law and constitutional law and plans to pursue a federal judicial clerkship after completing her degree.
Gibens’ undergraduate career has prepared her for this next step. She has taken foundational law classes and developed critical thinking skills through interdisciplinary studies. She stepped outside of her comfort zone and learned more about university leadership and Chancellor Randy Woodson by becoming a chancellor’s aide. Not only has she been challenged academically, she has grown personally.
“NC State has helped me explore my identity,” she said. “I don’t think that’s something I would have been able to do outside of college — to sit in the classroom and talk about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be Black, the differences in social class and status.”
Supporting identity exploration may be one of Gibens’ most enduring contributions at NC State. She has continued to advocate for underresourced students and first-generation students, serving as a TRIO Upward Bound mentor and returning to Red and White Night in 2021 to share her updated story with donors, along with how they can continue to support students with financial need.
“I spoke after I had surgery on my arm. I was in a sling, and I was more confident than I think I ever have been as far as sharing my own story,” she said. “I’m more powerful when I’m confident in my voice, even when it means that I have to make myself vulnerable.
“Being vulnerable helps people empathize and connect, which helps something change. On a college campus, that’s the kind of thing that changes the community.”
Gibens has spent much of the past four years devoted to changing, enhancing and increasing the sense of community at NC State by serving on the executive board for the university’s NAACP chapter and the Society of Afrikan American Culture. It was through work with groups like that she accomplished her goal of publishing in a campus newspaper.
For the past year and half, she has expanded her involvement to create the Black Student Union with several fellow students — one of her most meaningful experiences at NC State.
After a full semester of researching similar organizations at other universities, meeting with the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity and speaking with stakeholders like potential advisers and other students, the group drafted a constitution and registered as an official student organization for the fall 2021 semester.
“I don’t consider myself a proud person typically, but this is something I am very, very proud of,” Gibens said. “I know the work will pay off for Black-identifying students in the future. I didn’t get to do all the things I wanted to do with the organization during my time here, but I got started, and now I get to pass the baton to someone else and say, ‘We laid this foundation for you.’”
No Place Like the Pack
For as much as Gibens prepared for her time at NC State, not everything followed the plan.
There was her goal of studying abroad, for instance. She earned a competitive U.S. Department of State Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, one of three NC State students to do so in 2021. Unfortunately, the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic made study abroad impossible for her.
“It was huge for me because I struggled through the application process, like many students do,” Gibens said. “I was very honored and excited, but when I got done being upset about not being able to go, I promised myself I would create a lifestyle that would allow me to travel after school — that’s my new goal now.”
Then there was her well-planned law school application cycle, interrupted by the aforementioned emergency arm surgery, which impacted her dominant arm right as she was preparing to take the LSAT.
But as the finish line came into focus, there were good diversions, too — like the part where she figured NC State would be just a stop on her path. Sometimes things turn out better than planned.
“NC State has been so much more than a place I pass through,” she said. “It has become my home, and that means a lot — I moved around before coming to college, and being here is the longest I’ve stayed at a single school. So I made NC State my home. And I’m always going to come back home.”
With Gibens’ extraordinary track record, it’s safe to bet that if she said it, she’ll make it happen.
Extraordinary Opportunities Await