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Howling Success: Esmira Poladova Forges Her Own Path, Inspires Others as First-Generation College Student

Esmira Poladova in graduation robes making a wolfie sign

Parts of this story were adapted from the Giving News article, “Through the Darkness to Shine a Light.”

Esmira Poladova was finishing her breakfast in a small town in Rwanda when the news broke that NC State would be canceling in-person classes for the remainder of the spring semester. What’s more, she and her teammates on the Alternative Service Break trip learned that travel was being restricted, and their flight back to the United States might be delayed or canceled.

Despite feeling somewhat helpless in the situation, Poladova knew there was still work to be done at the school where she was volunteering. So, right after she heard the news, she put her feelings aside and led her team of volunteers back into classrooms to share the joys of STEM and the vast possibilities in the engineering field with sixth-grade students. Fortunately, she and her teammates were also able to return to the United States safely.

“It was a lot,” Poladova recalled. “Everyone was wearing masks and we were scared to come near anyone. There was actually one person on our trip who got sick at the gate at the airport because he had food poisoning. I’ve never seen people make a bigger deal out of something like that!”

Poladova knows firsthand how education can change a life, which is why she spent so much time during her college years advocating and sharing her story with others.

Journey to College

Poladova was born at the crossroads of western Asia and eastern Europe in Baku, in the Republic of Azerbaijan, which became independent in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. When she was just 7 years old, she and her parents fled the mountainous region’s violence and waves of ethnic cleansing and sought asylum in the United States.

After arriving in the United States, Poladova’s family moved around frequently and eventually settled in Charlotte, N.C. And even though no one in her family had attended college before, it was always in her sights.

“We struggled a lot when I was growing up, and my parents believed that education was our way out of, basically, poverty,” she said. “In my culture, we strongly believe in education as the route to success, so my parents always instilled in me that I was going to go to college. It wasn’t even a question. I was going to go and change the course of my life and help them out as well.”

Poladova was always good at math and science, and loved solving puzzles. From a fairly young age, she was intrigued with becoming an engineer.

“I had all these noble ideas about what I wanted to do with my career, and engineering was going to help me get there,” she said.

Poladova worked hard to keep her grades up throughout grade school, but that wasn’t the only obstacle. One night when she was 11, her father went to his job driving a taxi and never came home. He was robbed and killed not far from his own front door. As Poladova describes it, her family immediately went from having little, to having nothing.

Still, Poladova and her family found a way to help her achieve her goal. Both their close-knit Russian community and the broader community rallied around them. With the help of her mother’s faith and diligent savings, her own high school job at a dry cleaners and a package of financial aid, Poladova made her way to NC State despite never getting the chance to visit campus before applying.

“If you want to be an engineer and stay in North Carolina, you only have one option: it’s NC State,” Poladova said. “When I got in, I remember my mom and I were just screaming and shouting with joy, and it was the happiest day of my life.”

Esmira Poladova in graduation robes in front of Talley Student Union
Esmira Poladova in graduation robes in front of Talley Student Union

Overcoming Challenges

Despite the feelings of euphoria after being accepted to NC State, Poladova was quickly reminded of the hardships she and her family faced. She came to campus with no backpack, supplies, nor laptop, and for a brief time, she even slept on her apartment floor. As she struggled to pay the bills, she also struggled to maintain the grade-point-average needed to maintain a critical merit scholarship, and after her sophomore year she was forced to withdraw. However, thanks to programs like the Student Emergency Fund and Pack Promise, as well as caring members of the NC State faculty and staff, she found her way back.

TRIO, NC State’s federally initiated program that provides academic, career, and personal support for under resourced and first-generation undergraduates, supported her throughout the academic probation appeal process. After meeting with administrators and faculty in the College of Engineering, she discovered an interest in solving problems in water sanitation, hygiene, and pollution. Soon after, she declared her major in in biological and agricultural engineering (with a minor in science, technology, and society).

“I honestly didn’t know I had a passion for it until I started doing the work, and I think that’s true for a lot of students here,” Poladova said. “You don’t know what you’re passionate about when you’re 18, so you have to try things out.”

In addition to her success in the classroom, Poladova became more involved with TRIO programs and giving back to the community. She was part of the focus group for a 2017 study on food insecurity among the university’s student population, and has embarked on multiple service trips with the Research Triangle Professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders, including one in which she helped install a well and water pumps for a school in Sierra Leone. During the recent Alternative Spring Break trip to Rwanda, she was the group leader for her school and led engineering workshops for sixth graders.

Esmira Poladova teaches a workshop at Nkumba School
Esmira Poladova teaches a workshop at Nkumba School

“The purpose of the trip was to try and get them to think like engineers,” Poladova said. “We showed them the engineering design process, taught them critical thinking skills, and tried to get them to be more creative, which is something that’s typically not part of their curriculum. To be the group leader there and help those kids was an amazing opportunity and showed me that I actually like to teach.”

Poladova has also assisted TRIO by serving as a speaker at multiple campus events, particularly those about overcoming hunger and homelessness. One of her most memorable and impactful moments was when she told her story at a Red and White Night fundraising event. Her speech, as well as those of four other student speakers, helped raise millions of dollars for the Student Emergency Fund.

“That’s probably something I’m most proud of during my time here,” Poladova said.

Esmira Poladova (right), Chancellor Woodson, and other TRIO student speakers at Red and White Night
Esmira Poladova (right), Chancellor Woodson, and other TRIO student speakers at Red and White Night

Moving Forward

Poladova became the first member of her family to earn a college degree this May, and even secured a job before graduating. She started this week as a water resources engineer for the John R. McAdams Company in Charlotte, where she will focus on storm water for commercial development, stream restoration, green infrastructure, among other responsibilities.

“I’m passionate about making cities more green, and that’s exactly what this job allows me to do,” she said.

In addition to learning the ins and outs of the new job, Poladova plans to continue giving back to her community and the world around her through volunteer work. She also wants to remain involved with TRIO and pay it forward to other students like her.

“If it wasn’t for the support of TRIO, I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be graduating,” Poladova said. “It was really, really hard doing college essentially on my own. My family couldn’t really help me because they’d never been through this experience, so TRIO is responsible for my graduation, essentially.”

“Esmira has never allowed her background to determine what she could and could not do while in college,” said Rebecca Woskoff, Student Support Services-STEM assistant director and Pack Promise coordinator. “It has been a privilege and an inspiration to watch the growth in Esmira from a freshman who was driven by passion and hard work, but unsure of her place in the NC State community, to find herself and seek out opportunities to grow, serve, and give back to those who are in need. She is an exceptional individual that will truly have the power to change the world.”

In Her Own Words…