‘Get A Good Pair of Boots’: Students From Rural Appalachia Discuss Their Experiences as Hokies

In the fall of 2020, five students from rural Southwest Virginia transferred into Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) to study wildlife conservation.

Encouraged to apply to Virginia Tech by Collegiate Associate Professor Kevin Hamed – then a professor at Virginia Highlands Community College and now a professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation – the students having shared countless experiences and collected numerous accolades during their time as Hokies.

On the eve of walking across the commencement stage at Lane Stadium, Kalin Davis and Nathan Ferguson of Glade Spring and Ryan Adkins, Austin Holloway, and Tanner Humbert of Abingdon talked about their experiences as transfer students, the challenges and advantages of coming to Virginia Tech from rural Appalachia, the importance of faculty mentorship, and what advice they would pass along to future students.

Remember back to when you arrived at Virginia Tech. What were your first impressions of being on campus in Blacksburg?

Holloway: From my side, it was really nerve-wracking. I had never been to a place this big or even visited here, so I was really blown away by the size of campus and the size of the classes. It was nothing like we had had at community college. It was interesting that we came in during that time of COVID, so there weren’t a ton of people on campus, but we did have a couple classes on campus that were way bigger than any we had experienced, so that was nerve-wracking.

Ferguson: Just seeing the size of campus, walking from one end to the other and walking from the apartments to a classroom building every day was strange, especially compared to Virginia Highlands Community College, where you could walk from one end of the campus to the other end in two minutes.

Adkins: Yeah, we definitely learned time management better, realizing we had to compensate for the time it took to get from class to class.

Humbert: At Highlands, there were a lot of people, but you saw them every day and kind of had a sense of who everyone was. But here, you see someone new every day, and it is a very different experience. The absolute volume of people here was really intimidating for someone coming from a small college.

Holloway: “Intimidating” is definitely a good word. But also definitely very welcoming.

Kalin Davis: Honestly, my first impression might be different from most. I immediately felt like I was at home. Of course, Virginia Tech’s campus is really large, but I felt a sense of relief instead of panic. Deep down, I felt that I always belonged here and would make unforgettable memories.

Humbert: And the scooters were really nice. (Laughter)

What were some challenges that you remember from those first days and weeks?

Holloway: Finding classrooms. Our first class might be in the New Classroom Building, and you say, “OK, I know where that is.” And then you realize your next class is in Cheatham Hall, which is a 15-minute walk away. We didn’t realize that when we were making our class schedules.

Humbert: Trying to work out the bus system so you’re not arriving to class 40 minutes too early.

Adkins: Or too late

Davis: It was so confusing.

Holloway: Instead of getting off at the New Classroom Building, you might find yourself getting off at Wendy’s. You don’t want to do that. (Laughter)

How did your experiences growing up in rural Appalachia influence your time at Virginia Tech? https://video.vt.edu/media/1_agzwyndm

Adkins: I think one aspect is not slacking off. That’s one thing I think we all can agree we focus on: just trying to stay on time and on schedule for classes. Another moment that kind of opened up my eyes was when [Professor] John Seiler told us that for any class we don’t go to, we’re missing out on the class time we’ve already paid money for. After that, we understood that every minute we’re not in class is counting against us. So we really tried to be there on time and not leave early.

Holloway: I think the math came out to $10 or $13 a minute. Every minute we missed in class, we’d be losing $10 or $13 that we’re paying for that semester.

Davis: Where we grew up, we were taught to work hard and do your best, to give 110 percent. That’s how I thought about it.

Holloway: I think we all showed up with a chip on our shoulders, like we had something to prove. Coming from a rural background in Appalachia, we’re kind of in the minority here. We came in with an idea that we have something we’re working for, because we’re paying for this.

Ferguson: It’s how a lot of us were raised, just on the idea that you should put forth your best whether you like it or not, so it’s really just about putting forward everything you can in order to succeed. It’s not necessarily about escaping a rural background, but more to really get ahead. It’s about understanding that our parents worked hard for something, and what we’re doing now is working hard for something else.

Holloway: I’m pretty sure we all want to go back to those rural areas, because that’s where we’re from. We take pride in that, and I hope we can go back and make those places better.

Can you talk about some highlights from your time in CNRE? When did you feel like you really belonged here?

Ferguson: For me, it’s whenever I’m able to go out in the field. Whether it’s being in a stream electroshocking fish or just getting into the lab and working on a project, it’s just being able to get the opportunities from multiple professors to explore different ideas and do various research. That’s really when the experience hits me the most.

Holloway: Similar for me. When we started getting into the classes that had an outdoor component to them, I was like, “Wow, I’m getting to apply what I want to do, and I get to be outside while I’m doing it.” Being outside is a lot of what I grew up with, so I’m more comfortable out there than I am in the classroom. So those outdoor lab experiences were where I first started having those moments where I thought: This is what college is like; this can be fun.

Adkins: Coming into college – and I don’t know if you guys feel the same way – my perspective was that it’d just be about being in class the whole time and doing math. We sure got our fair share of that, but as we got into the higher level courses, we really got to go out into the field and apply what we were learning and what we’re going to be doing in the future. I think that was the most impactful thing for me.

Humbert: Especially the field techniques course. Spending 10 days dirtier than you’ve ever been in your life was a highlight. We all slept in a tent or a hammock and just roughed it for 10 days. It didn’t feel like college. It felt like summer camp.

Davis: It was fun. The field course exposed me to the daily life of a wildlife biologist, especially how to function on little sleep. I enjoyed learning hands on and experiencing different species. I’m grateful that I had the chance to see salamander species that many people rarely get to see.

Ferguson: Whenever you talk to someone who isn’t in this college, they’ll ask what you did today. And I’ll say, “Well, we went out into the field and decided we wanted to collect some fish and see what’s there.” And they’re like, “Are you serious? I’ve been in the engineering hall all day working on calculus.”

Adkins: I remember riding the campus bus one time, and it was a day we had one of those four- or five-hour outdoor labs. That day it was pouring rain and storming, and someone on the bus asked me what class I was going to, and I said I was going to Pandapas Pond. And they said, “Are you kidding? In this weather?”

Humbert: And the Cheatham Hall lounge experience is like nothing else on campus. You don’t know who – or what – is going to be in there anytime you walk through the doors.

Austin: The Cheatham Hall lobby is welcoming, and I don’t experience that when I walk into other buildings on campus. Cheatham has a completely different energy: Everyone’s talking, everyone’s having a fun time. It’s because we’re enjoying what we’re doing and everything. It’s a welcoming college.

Davis: It’s a community. It’s a home.

Ferguson: Going back to something Ryan said, a little bit of our background is showing people that even though it’s pouring rain outside or it’s 20 degrees and the wind is blowing 20 miles an hour, we’re still going to show up, even when a lot of people won’t. We’ve had that exposure and we have the willingness to do what a lot of other people aren’t willing to do. You have to go out, even when your nets are freezing when you pull them out of the water

Davis: Or you’re just using your bare hands.

Adkins: And that’s how it is in the job field, too. You can’t plan to only go out when it’s 70 degrees and sunny. I think that’s what they’re trying to teach us here: that you have to be able to go out in those weather conditions and just work. And that’s what we learned growing up.

Collegiate Associate Professor Kevin Hamed (at far left) stands with (from left) Nathan Ferguson, Kalin Davis, Ryan Adkins, Tanner Humbert, and Austin Holloway outside of Cheatham Hall. Photo by Jarek Campbell for Virginia Tech.

How did having Kevin Hamed as a professor and mentor – first at Virginia Highlands Community College and then at Virginia Tech – help prepare you to come to Virginia Tech? What lessons will you carry from your time studying with him?

Holloway: I don’t think we can talk about our time at Virginia Highlands without talking about Kevin and how much of a factor he was for each of us being here. And I think it’s so interesting because he’s influenced and taught each one of us in a different way. There are certain experiences I had that you all may not have had, but he made us all feel like we want to come here. And I think for all of us, knowing that Kevin was going to be on campus made it easier for us to make the decision to come to VT.

Ferguson: All of us are running different paths than when we entered community college. I mean, when I started at Virginia Highlands, I went into materials engineering; I wasn’t thinking about anything related to wildlife. It’s one of those things you’re told in high school, “You’re a smart kid, so you should do engineering. “That’s what a lot of my decisions boiled down to. And when I met Kevin, he showed me that there’s the potential to get into this field.

Holloway: One thing Kevin taught us is to not specialize. We all have interests in what we want to do, interests that are specialized to ourselves, but overall, we’re all broadly interested in a lot of different things. That’s just much more applicable when it comes to the job market.

Adkins: I think the bottom line is Kevin opened up a door for us as far as biology and fieldwork that some students will never get to experience. That’s something I’ll never take for granted, something I’ll always take with me.

Holloway: The way that Kevin taught general biology was important: he didn’t teach it for molecular biology or pre-med students; he taught the class for people who were going to study in fields centered around being outdoors, around conservation, wildlife, and fisheries-related work. And that was really applicable when we got here. We were ahead of the curve when we arrived here.

Davis: I’m very grateful to Kevin for the things he’s shown us and taught us over the years and for just taking the time out of his day to help us. It’s been amazing.

Humbert: Kevin as a person, too. There’s no one quicker to fly off the handle and come to your defense than Kevin. I’d follow that man anywhere.

Holloway: It’s definitely not just the field experiences. It’s his personality. You can go to him for anything, and if he doesn’t know what to tell you, he’s going to know someone to direct you to. Having that kind of mentor, we were fortunate and blessed. It’s made us a lot more confident as students.

Davis: It really helped us as transfers already having somebody on faculty, having a mentor who we were already comfortable with.

Ferguson: I know Kevin’s helped us a lot behind the scenes that we don’t know about. Whenever he writes a letter of reference for a job application or an internship, they’ll mention that the letter of reference was amazing. It’s great having someone like that on your side.

Humbert: It’s about investment. Tooth to bone, he’s the most invested professor I’ve met on this campus. Not even for us but for all undergrads; they’re always at his door. He could be three days behind on paperwork, but he’ll stop what he’s doing and sit there with you.

You’re all wildlife conservation majors, though some of you are graduating with different minors and double majors. What drew you to the field?

Ferguson: I’ll never forget the night that I switched. It was that spotted salamander night [collecting salamanders for Hamed’s field biology course]. It was 50 degrees and pouring rain and I was soaked all the way through. But after that night — after seeing all those salamanders and understanding that you can work in this field — the next day, I switched out of the engineering track and I started looking at different wildlife schools to move to.

Davis: Same with me. I was going into general biology, and then I held my first spotted salamander and I was like, “Nope. I have to do wildlife for a career.” Now, I want to work with amphibians in wetland ecosystems because of the impact Kevin has had on me.

Holloway: That night with the salamanders, that was a record-breaking night for sure. I don’t know if it’s because we’re lucky or blessed.

Humbert: The night that got me was a different night, the marbled salamander night for Kevin. It was me, Austin, and our friend from home, Chris. We were catching a ton and I walked over to this tall, grassy area, and I heard what sounded like a little girl starting to get angry and holler at me. The hair stood up on my neck and arms, and I looked at Chris and I said, “That’s a bobcat.” At the time, I was thinking about being a high school teacher, but that night I said, “No, that’s not me. I can’t have an experience like this and then go do that.”

What advice would you give to future applicants from Southwest Virginia who are thinking about coming to Virginia Tech? https://cfvod.kaltura.com/p/2375811/sp/237581100/thumbnail/entry_id/1_2cbhe5q5/version/100041/width/961/height/540

Ferguson: Coming from our area of Appalachia and the way we grew up, we’re all really extroverted people. My biggest piece of advice would be just having that ability to go and talk to a professor or send an email. A lot of students come up to me and ask how I’m so involved, and I tell them that I just reached out. Having that ability to just put yourself out there will put you in front of a lot of people. And that’s a lot of how we grew up, just going out and talking to people.

Holloway: If I had to pick one piece of advice to give to kids from our area interested in doing this type of thing, it would be that if you get the opportunity, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. It is definitely possible to succeed: the resources and feasibility are here. Just hit the ground running and take every opportunity given to you.

Adkins: Don’t limit yourself and don’t listen to a lot of what our culture says about what you can or can’t do. You can do anything you’re interested in.

Humbert: If you’re thinking about CNRE or any natural resources program, one of the most important things is to just get out and go to the field and experience it. I know a lot of people who came into this field and left because they didn’t like that third hour of the three-hour outdoor lab, when it got really cold and wet.

Adkins: And definitely get a good pair of boots. (Laughter)

Holloway: You don’t need to know everything, though. People will help you figure some things out, but I think it does help knowing, I want to do this. This is what I want to do.

Davis: I’d echo that it’s important to hit the ground running. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to email someone or ask a question. We’ve had great experiences because we’ve all been able to get out of our comfort zones a little bit and reach out.

Ferguson: That’s what has set us apart. Our professors are often saying, “Why are these five students so different?” We’re all driven. Like Tanner and the rest have said, in that third, fourth, fifth hour in the field, we’re still going. We might be hating life at that moment, but we’re still going. That’s what sets us apart, the ability to keep doing when others can’t. That’s what’s going to get you noticed.

Holloway: And building on that, if you get these experiences, it’s not just about the experiences themselves. It’s also about the connections you make with peers and professors. The world of natural resources is so interconnected, and you never know when a professor is going to know the head of a company you’re aiming to work for one day. So be kind – be respectful to everyone you meet – because the relationships you build and the impressions you make are going to lay the foundation for what’s going to come.

Humbert: I would also say: find a job. Not after you’ve arrived but before. Find a professor you want to work for, a lab you might want to work in. It might not be field work, but try to find something. Whether it’s sifting sand or weighing baby hellbenders or whether it’s dissecting fish or looking through bear videos, find something. And then do internships. Work for companies over the summer baking in the sun. Do whatever you need to do to see if this is right for you, because people in this field have to be driven by passion. You need to make sure you have that passion.

Davis: The example I use is when I joined the Wildlife Habitat and Population Analysis lab, working with Dr. Marcella Kelly and Brogan Holcombe. I was just a volunteer, and then a few months into my time, they were like, “Hey, you should apply for this fellowship.” I was lucky enough to get it and then I applied for a second one and got that, too. So it’s really helpful to know that volunteering in a lab often leads to paying work.

Holloway: It definitely makes the financial side of college a lot more feasible.

Ferguson: We’ve all had jobs that have helped pay for our time on campus, and that’s something that’s important for people coming from a rural community. If you come up here and put yourself out there for opportunities and scholarships and jobs, it’s possible to make it through.

Holloway: That’s one thing I hear a lot from people in rural places: why would you choose to go to college when you could get a job in a factory somewhere? And there’s nothing wrong with working in a factory: I was fed on that kind of work. But I’d stick my neck out and say if you’re doing everything you’re supposed to be doing, it’s impossible to come out of here without being successful. Everyone is so welcoming and excited to give you opportunities that as long as you take care of your side of things, you’ll be a success.

(From left) Kalin Davis, Nathan Ferguson, Ryan Atkins, Tanner Humbert, and Austin Holloway talk about their experiences at Hokies. Photo by Jarek Campbell for Virginia Tech.

Degrees, awards, and scholarships

Adkins graduated with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation with a minor in forestry.

Davis graduated with a dual bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation and fish conservation and was the recipient of the Class of 1952 Scholarship.

Ferguson graduated with a dual bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation and fish conservation, was a Honors Laureate Diploma recipient, and was the recipient of the William Marvin Carter Special Scholarship and the Class of 1952 Scholarship.

Holloway graduated with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation with a minor in forestry, was named the Outstanding Senior for the College of Natural Resources and Environment, was a Honors Laureate Diploma recipient, and was the recipient of the Henry S. Mosby Scholarship and the Michael B. Wagner Scholarship.

Humbert graduated with a bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation with a minor in forestry and was the recipient of the Henry S. Mosby Scholarship.

– Krista Timney

Video by Jarek Campbell

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