Jan. 18, 2024

‘The resources are definitely here’

Working toward a degree at NDSU as a first-generation college student is source of pride for Paige Sanders and her family.

“It’s a pretty big deal for us. My family’s always been really supportive of whatever I decided to do with my education. Whether it was college or the trades like my dad did,” said the sophomore from Superior, Wisconsin. “Ultimately, they’re really proud of me for being here and I’m proud of myself, too.”

Sanders, an environmental engineering major, said two resources at NDSU helped significantly when transitioning from high school to college.

One is TRIO Student Support Services, which provides services and support for students from diverse backgrounds, including undergraduate, income eligible, first-generation students and students with disabilities. Sanders said additional perks of the program are that she receives early enrollment, a mentor who checks in on how she is doing frequently and access to study spaces and tutors.

“It’s an extra backbone of support when you’re getting through your degree, especially when it’s engineering,” Sanders said.

Additionally, the Engineering Leadership Learning Community helped Sanders during her freshman year. The ELLC, made possible through a partnership between the College of Engineering and Residence Life, allows first year engineering students to live in a shared community environment in Sevrinson Hall. Students also participate in a one-credit seminar course during their fall semester to develop leadership skills within the field of engineering.

Sanders said the ELLC helped her make friends, developed lifelong skills and made her more comfortable working in a group.

“Engineering is interdisciplinary by nature. If you’re a mechanical, you’re going to work with a civil engineer. If you’re an environmental engineer, I could be working with construction management,” she said. “So being able to form those connections early on with people from those different majors is really valuable.”

Carol Jergenson, assistant director for residential education with NDSU’s Residence Life, said the collaboration between students is one of the benefits of the ELLC.

“While everyone in the community is majoring in a program through the NDSU College of Engineering, there is a great deal of diversity in thought and focus which makes this community so unique,” she said.  

Incoming engineering students interested in the ELLC can apply on NDSU’s learning community website.

Sanders always knew she wanted to pursue a degree in engineering. She decided to choose environmental engineering because of her childhood in rural Wisconsin and her passion for natural resources and helping people.  

NDSU’s environmental engineering program provides students with the skills they need to design sustainable solutions for societal challenges.

Achintya Bezbaruah, the interim chair of NDSU civil, construction and environmental engineering, said the program addresses the growing national workforce need for environmental engineers. NDSU gives students hands-on courses in air, water, and soil environments and recently invested more than $1 million in resources for students.

“The program has small class sizes, with each student getting the needed attention and care to be successful,” Bezbaruah said.

The environmental engineering capstone project allows students to design systems that solve real-world problems while also joining a national environmental engineering competition.

“Hands-on learning and real-world experience prepare our students for their future careers as engineers and entrepreneurs,” Bezbaruah said.  

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, environmental engineers have a faster than average job outlook with an expected 6% job growth by 2032.

Choosing NDSU was an easy decision for Sanders. She felt at home immediately when touring campus.  

“I got connected to professors right away on the tour. I could tell that they genuinely wanted me to be here and I could picture myself being in the program,” she said. “The Bison spirit is everywhere on campus and I love that because I’m a big sports fan. I was going through the tour and I was like, ‘yep, this is my place.’”

One of Sanders’ mentors in her program is Kelly Rusch, a professor of environmental engineering. Sanders said Rusch cares deeply about her students and always checks in with how everyone is doing.

“She’s very understanding, she’s very supportive and she’s very engaging to learn from,” Sanders said. “She really makes us pick our own minds about where we want to take our degree and how important the work we’re doing is. I just feel like she’s really inspirational because she knows a lot, but she also pours so much into us as students.”

In addition to finding her place within the College of Engineering, Sanders is heavily involved in various organizations on campus. She is the president of Engineers Without Borders, a non-profit service-based organization that creates sustainable solutions for communities in need.

“That organization gives college students the chance to change lives while also actually applying that engineering knowledge that they get from their classes,” she said.

Sanders plays string bass, and is the section leader for the University Symphony Orchestra, co-section leader for Wind Symphony and is a member of the String Quintet. For Sanders, being involved in music programs at NDSU, which are open to all majors, is a way to enjoy her passions outside of engineering.

“I think it’s really important for all students, whether they’re first-gen or not, to find something like that on campus. Because if you’re just doing school all the time, no matter how much you love your major, you’re going to get burnt out,” she said. “College is more than just your classes.”

She’s also a member of the NDSU’S Society of Women Engineers, Kappa Delta and Greek Life.

Involvement in campus-wide organizations has been a top priority for Sanders, who wants to get the most out of her NDSU experience.

“Staying busy is a big part of who I am. I came here to get the most out of my college experience. I want the degree, I want the career. But I also want to get out here and make lifelong friends and connections and change the college a little bit better than when I got here,” she said. “I get involved in everything and pursue every passion I’ve got because this is the best time in your life to do it.”

Sanders wants prospective first-generation students to not be afraid of applying to college and getting involved.

“I know you might not have the most experience with what college is going to be about or what to expect or how to pay for everything, but if you get out and get involved, meet people in your major and in different majors, you’re going to find a support system,” she said. “Every student is here because they want a degree and they want to succeed, but I’ve never met somebody who didn’t also want the same for everyone else around them.”

Her advice for first-generation engineering students is to know that obtaining a degree is possible.  

“You can do it, and if you ever feel like you can’t do it or you’re nervous about it, you just have to reach out,” she said. “The resources are definitely here.”

Apply now to start your path to success at NDSU or schedule a visit to see what NDSU has to offer. 

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