Ashley Lawson: Bringing Innovative Education Opportunities to Rural Students

Written By: Kasey Harris

The NC State Memorial Belltower, affectionately known to members of the NC State community as the “Belltower,” can be seen glowing Wolfpack Red to celebrate and commemorate some of NC State’s proudest achievements.

During September, the Belltower turned red to celebrate Ashley Lawson for her historic 2018 Truman Scholarship award. Lawson was one of only 59 awardees selected for the scholarship from a field of more than 750 applicants. She is NC State’s 10th Truman Scholar and the first from the College of Education.

A native of Sandy Ridge, NC, Lawson is set to graduate December 2019 with a degree in mathematics and mathematics education. She hopes to teach in rural North Carolina to continue advocating for and empowering rural students before continuing on to her graduate studies where she plans to further pursue her work and research in educational policy. “I want to be able to help my students get access to the information they need in their communities because I have total faith they will be able to make the best decisions for themselves with the right information,” Lawson explained.

When asked about her Belltower lighting, Lawson humbly responded, “to me, it’s not so much a celebration of me, but rather all the people who have helped get me here. I didn’t do it alone, I had a lot of friends, family, faculty members, and mentors who have supported me along the way. I want to use it as an opportunity to celebrate the work we’ve done together and to show what a big impact NC State has had on my life.”

As part of the Truman Scholarship, Lawson was invited to attend the 2018 Truman Scholar Leadership Week at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri. “It was sort of like camp, but a lot better,” explained Lawson, “we had classes, information sessions, and even got to work on service projects together.” The week-long program introduces awardees to the Truman Scholar network and provides them with information on how to best prepare for careers in public service. The week’s schedule included sessions on graduate school, other fellowships, finances, and career opportunities. Scholars participate in group policy projects related to their interest, which are later presented to a panel of experts. Lawson’s policy project focused on dismantling the school to prison pipeline.

As part of the week’s community service initiative, Lawson volunteered with a consignment shop to supports members of the local community through store revenue. Lawson says the week reinforced both her resolve to “fight for the kids who do not really have a voice,” and helped to strengthen her personal support network. “I learned to lean on my fellow Truman Scholars. We are all working to try to make the world a better place and we can do it better as a team,” she noted.

Reflecting on her time at NC State, Lawson finds inspiration for her work in not only her personal experiences in adjusting to university life on a large campus, but also through observing issues her peers and students face. After changing her major, Lawson joined the SMART Collaborative, a team of researchers and educators dedicated to making school a place where students want to be and want to learn. Working with the collaborative she began to notice there was little-to-no research focusing on rural educational development. “The SMART Collaborative does a lot of research focusing on minority students,” said Lawson, “I was able to see a lot of parallels to struggles I experienced myself and ones my students were dealing with.” She decided to see if the existing research could be expanded and applied to rural students or to more identity groups, to help more students feel included in school environments.

One issue, in particular, Lawson took interest in was students’ understanding of potential career offerings. “I noticed kids don’t really know about career options. Even when they do, especially students from rural areas, they sometimes saw it as too big, and would give up before they even had a chance to start.” This issue led Lawson to create the organization Meet My Future, which is dedicated to improving the career development, educational attainment, and opportunities for rural students and their communities. “I created the program to help bring some hope to rural communities, to help students see the different opportunities they have and to break down the barrier of it being ‘too much.’”

Lawson is currently working with Sandy Ridge Elementary school to bring Meet My Future to their students. She partners with professionals in the local community, including NC State

alumni, to share information and introduce students to career options they may not have considered or previously thought to have been unobtainable.

Arriving at NC State, Lawson says she was hoping to fly under the radar. “Even as a Park Scholar, I spent my first semester terrified I would fail all my classes.” Later, when Lawson joined the SMART Collaborative, she found her interest in educational policy and research, particularly in rural areas. Since joining the research collective, she created the Meet My Future organization and has been able to share her enthusiasm for rural education with an expanding audience, while also providing outreach, information, and opportunities for eager students hoping to learn more about educational and career options they may have otherwise dismissed.

Throughout her time at NC State, Lawson had the opportunity to work with a number of excellent and motivational faculty members who helped to further Lawson’s interest in education. “If I could give advice to other NC State students it would definitely be to get to know your faculty.” Lawson says the connections she made with faculty and staff at NC State were incredibly impactful, not only on her but the work she was able to do with the Meet My Future organization. “There are so many faculty members here at NC State who want to see students be successful,” explained Lawson.