Skip to main content

First in the Pack: Alston Willard

This originally appeared in the NC State Alumni magazine. Read the full story here.

For Alston Willard, a senior from Zebulon, N.C., who majors in ecological engineering, finding his way at NC State was partly about overcoming culture shock. NC State was the only school to which he applied, though he never visited the campus. Once in Raleigh, he met people who had kept spreadsheets of their potential colleges and hired writing coaches for their application essays. He met people who were wealthy in ways he had never seen, and who seemed to feel exceedingly comfortable with college life. “A lot of the kids seemed like they were bred for college,” he says. “I felt like I was just lucky to be going to college at all.” Coming in without taking calculus, he also felt behind his peers in class. He says his sophomore year was his “crucible”; he was scraping by in physics, and taking on a lot of debt because he couldn’t find time to work. He lost 10 pounds, but he learned to study hard, and early, for tests, and spent hours with tutors and online tutorials. Now he has friends who were blindsided by the higher-level classes in their majors, while the study skills he’s honed are paying off. “It’s been hard for me since I got here,” he says. There were other hiccups. A scheduling snafu tacked on an extra year to his degree; he’ll graduate in 2020 as a fifth-year senior. But he also took a risk and studied abroad, taking hydrology and waste management classes in Belgium — a life-changing experience he had never imagined having.