Up for the Challenge
First-generation college students make up one out of every four members of the Wolfpack today. Unbeknownst to some, though, are the number of challenges these students face as they navigate their college careers.
Omry Brewster is one of those students. As she gears up for graduation this May, her experience at NC State has helped her harness campus resources to overcome some of the challenges.
As she progressed in time, Brewster was recognized by faculty and staff as a blossoming leader. Their guidance opened up a world of new ideas and possibilities — most prominently the hyper-emergent field of data science.
With an unwavering commitment to excellence, a lot of perseverance and a little help from private philanthropy, Brewster is using NC State as a springboard to a big and bright future.
Diving in Head First
While her parents didn’t graduate from college, Brewster embraced early on their desire for her to obtain a four-year degree. She spent a good chunk of her childhood on the move with her family around Charlotte, North Carolina, attending eight different schools before graduating from high school.
When she arrived on NC State’s campus for an admitted students day prior to her enrollment in fall 2019, she was blown away by the number of resources on display. In addition to those student assets, Brewster was drawn to the large campus community, something often out of reach amidst her transient childhood.
“I learned a lot about what the school offered and it just seemed like there was no way that I wouldn’t be able to be successful with the plethora of opportunities that were offered,” Brewster said. “And it made me and my parents feel secure in my choice, like if she goes here, I know she’ll be okay.”
Once on campus, Brewster quickly threw herself into her studies — even as the COVID-19 pandemic raised uncertainties. She took a minimum of 16 credits each semester, plus summer classes. But in order to make ends meet financially, Brewster wasn’t afforded the luxury of simply being a student. She needed to find work that could fit alongside her busy class schedule.
She first turned to University Housing, where she became a Community Assistant (CA) her sophomore year, manning the front desk of her residence hall and assisting fellow residents of the building. By her senior year, Brewster was promoted to Community Assistant Coordinator (CAC), a leadership position that supervises a group of CAs. One big perk of the new position was that housing expenses are covered.
In addition to being a CAC, this year Brewster is working as a course collaboration leader for the NC State Data Science Academy and interning as a data analyst at VisionPoint Marketing in Raleigh. She averages about 30-35 hours working each week across the three jobs.
Even with all this extra effort and financial aid, Brewster still found herself having to take out some student loans to cover all her costs. That’s why she found it so impactful to be selected as the recipient of two NC State scholarships: the Wandra B. Hill Scholarship and the Arnater and Viola Nivens Scholarship.
The two scholarships have allowed Brewster to build up her savings and to explore post-graduation plans. After recently being accepted, she will be attending NC State’s Institute for Advanced Analytics beginning fall 2023, a one-year intensive graduate program that trains aspiring data scientists.
100% of the 2022 graduating class of NC State’s Institute of Advanced Analytics was employed by graduation.
The average base salary for the 2022 graduating class was $107,900.
Network of Alumni
Over 1,200 successful IAA alumni are currently working in over 425 organizations worldwide.
Falling in Love with Data Science
In the spring semester of her junior year, Brewster was sitting in for an academic advising session. With her breakneck speed of moving through classes, she was running out of credits. Her academic advisor suggested taking some courses in the Data Science Academy.
“I had never heard of it,” Brewster said. “But I was like, why not? I’m always down to learn a new skill.” That yes ended up being an important inflection point in Brewster’s academic and future career.
Founded in 2021, the Data Science Academy is a campus organization that “networks and catalyzes data science and AI” across all aspects of NC State. The primary way that it does this is through its wide variety of one-credit hour, project-based data science courses open to any NC State student, regardless of their major, as well as faculty, staff and alumni.
As an applied math major with a financial concentration in the College of Sciences, Brewster hadn’t really considered data science prior to that meeting with her advisor. After beginning with an introductory class that utilized the coding languages R and Python, however, she was head over heels.
“Throughout the course of that semester, I really enjoyed data science,” Brewster said. “I fell in love with the subject as a whole and when it came time to select more classes for my senior year fall semester, I signed up for two more.”
During that first Data Science Academy class, someone else took notice of Brewster’s abilities as a leader in the subject.
“Towards the end of the semester, I was sitting in class one day and when class ended, my professor asked me if I thought about being a course collaboration leader (CCL),” Brewster said. “It was a little overwhelming but I don’t really back down from challenges so I signed up.”
The CCL position is designed differently from traditional TAs, because it’s more of a peer-support role. CCLs’s hold virtual office hours to tackle generic student questions and sometimes attend classes to serve as guides for other students.
“We select our CCLs to be students that we think are going to be welcoming to students in the classes — whether they are coming to a CCL because they have a question that’s beyond the regular curriculum, because they’re inquisitive or curious and want to go further, or because they’re really struggling,” said Rachel Levy, executive director of the Academy.
Brewster is now finishing her second semester working as a CCL. Her supervisor, David Stokes, stressed that in order to be successful in this position, students need to have strong leadership skills.
“She’s very good at asking questions and reaching out when that is needed,” Stokes said. “So I just think she’s a wise individual, especially given she’s just graduating now. [Leadership] is a characteristic that she would have — wisdom in addition to leadership.”
TRIO Programs and Giving Back
The story of Brewster’s time at NC State can’t be told without TRIO Programs. TRIO encompasses a number of federally-established efforts to help Americans “enter college, graduate and move on to participate more fully in realizing America’s Economic and Social Dream.”
Sarah Wright, assistant director for Student Support Services with NC State TRIO, describes the program as supporting individual students who are either first-generation college students, meet certain economic levels or are registered with the Disability Resource Office.
“We work holistically with a student to ensure they graduate as close to four years as possible with a bachelor’s degree and that then they are a competitive applicant for graduate school and/or their career of choice,” Wright said.
Brewster was accepted to Student Support Services-STEM her second semester of her freshman year. As a younger student, Brewster was assigned a TRIO Academic Coach — a staff member who offers deeply personalized and trusting assistance to navigate the various challenges of college life.
When she returned to campus after the pandemic, Brewster became a peer mentor through Student Support Services, a program that allows upper-class TRIO students to put on programming for first-year NC State students and offer guidance and accompaniment. Because she could connect with the uphill battles many TRIO students face, Brewster felt called to give back to those in her position.
“When I was completely lost my first year, I didn’t really know what to do,” Brewster said. “I know how that feels, and I wanted to be a part of making [younger students] feel more secure.”
She wanted to show other students that, yes, it is possible to complete college and be successful — even if you may feel out of your comfort zone many times.
TRIO staff found it inspiring to see Brewster blossom during her time in the program.
“She’s in the sciences. She did research. She’s done internships. She’s now going to go to graduate school here. She’s done it all,” Wright said. “She will probably have a bigger impact on North Carolina than North Carolina has had on her.”
While it was never easy, it is clear now that Brewster’s “up for anything” attitude was a major reason for where she stands: on the verge of being a first-generation college graduate, a graduate student studying one of the foremost emerging fields and an individual who desires to give back to those in similar positions as her.
“No matter your background it’s very possible to do whatever you think you could, even if it doesn’t seem like you can,” Brewster said.