Graduate Perseveres to Fulfill Lifelong Dream

Laura Riddle

Neil Allen, a 2020 NC State graduate with a Bachelor of Science in biological engineering, will be delivering the commencement address to his fellow graduates this Saturday in a special ceremony for those, including himself, impacted by the pandemic. The day marks a momentous occasion for many, and a day Neil has been waiting on for more than 25 years. 

In 1995, Neil Allen was a college freshman straight out of high school. He thought he wanted to be a teacher. “I always thought I was a good student through high school, and I didn’t have to work too hard to get decent grades, but when I went to college, I hit a wall because I never properly learned how to study. I wasn’t prepared for what I was stepping into.” Not long into his studies, he realized teaching was not the path he wanted to follow.

At 19 years old, Neil dropped out of college. 

After a few years of working and trying to discover a career path, he accepted an offer from Ron Horvath, owner of Horvath Associates, to work at his engineering firm making deliveries – an offer that marked the beginning of Neil’s lifelong journey. 

Long Road Ahead

Neil always planned to return to college and complete his bachelor’s degree. He worked his way up at the engineering firm from making deliveries to permit tracking specialist. In 2005, he enrolled as a non-degree seeking student at NC State University to improve his academic transcripts. 

Around the same time, his wife, Carolyn, became pregnant with their first set of twins, Faye and Lily. “I had to put things back on hold for a little bit because we decided Carolyn would stay home, and I would continue working.” 

His career at the engineering firm continued to move upward, learning how to draw in computer-aided design and eventually becoming a project manager. His family would expand again with the arrival of another set of twins, Lulu and Suzy. In 2016, Neil was offered a partnership at Horvath Associates on the condition he would complete his education and get his engineering license. 

Neil was never far from NC State University by taking advantage of Extension workshops and following industry-related research by experts like Bill Hunt, Biological and Agricultural Engineering professor and Extension specialist. “The BAE program, and Dr. Hunt, put out these publications – here’s how you should design a wetland, here’s how you should provide nutrient treatment, here’s how you can help prevent streambank erosion – and I’d rely upon his guidance for stormwater designs,” he says. Neil was also familiar with Hunt’s work through the team that developed the state stormwater minimum design criteria, an appointment he shared with Neil’s boss, Ron Horvath. 

When the time arrived for Neil to enroll for a college program, he chose BAE. “I felt like everyday, I could come in and pick the minds of some of the most knowledgeable people in the country, who have this kind of information and working gave me an opportunity to ask a lot of questions related to real-world situations,” he says.

“What attracted me to the program was that it’s a very practical course of study. There was a real investment from my advisors Dr. Hale, and Dr. Burchell and all the faculty to help me achieve my goals even though I wasn’t a traditional student.”

“Neil’s desire to complete his degree was extraordinary and his level of experience in the field is not common for undergraduate degree seeking students,” says Andy Hale, Biological and Agricultural Engineering professor and undergraduate coordinator. “He exposed his peers in the classroom to real-time applications that could be paired with the basic engineering sciences being taught in the class.” 

Although his experience advanced the knowledge of some classmates, Neil found the value in his academic training prepared him to think critically and solve problems beyond the course material. For their senior design project, his team got real-world experience redesigning two failing stormwater control measures. “We were able to provide the NC State Facilities Department with professional level documents they could bid out to have the facilities repaired.” 

Neil completed his degree in 2020, along with 65 of his fellow classmates. 

On the Future

Neil expressed his excitement about the future of engineering while learning with his BAE counterparts and the diversity of candidates entering the field. “When you have more perspectives and opinions in the room, you’re going to get a better set of ideas.” As Vice President of Horvath Associates, he looks for qualities in job candidates like those he found with his BAE peers. 

Neil says Horvath Associates has doubled in size over the last year. He is preparing to take the Principles and Practice of Engineering Examination (PE), an industry standard to demonstrate competency of the engineering discipline, to become a Professional Engineer.

His wife and children, along with his mother and father, Jack and Jeanne Allen, will be in attendance to watch his graduation ceremony on Saturday.  

When asked what advice he has for other students he talks about perseverance and the importance of a college education. He wanted to express that he found a tremendous support system within the BAE program through advisors, faculty and other students which enabled him to achieve a lifelong dream.