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Goodnight Spotlight: Elizabeth Vanegas

During her freshman year at NC State, senior Liz Vanegas ’22 realized that pursuing a career in medicine might not be the perfect fit. But, what Liz soon discovered was that majoring in Science Education became the perfect blend between her love of both “science and helping people.” Now only 3 weeks from graduation, Liz reflects on experiences like student teaching, COVID-19, travel-abroad, being a first-generation college student, and adventures with the Goodnight Scholars Program…all of which validated her decision to change academic paths, and now go on to teach North Carolina’s future middle school STEM students!

Goodnight Scholars Program: Tell us about yourself! Include your hometown, major, year at NCSU, and any other fun facts like favorite hobbies.

Elizabeth Vanegas ’22: Hi everyone! My name is Elizabeth Vanegas (otherwise known as Liz) and I am a senior majoring in Science Education with a concentration in Middle Grades Science. I was born and raised in Sanford, North Carolina. My family is originally from the beautiful country of El Salvador and I am one of the first people in my family to go to college. A few of my hobbies include playing ukulele and singing, making oddly specific Spotify playlists, collecting vinyls, going to concerts, and traveling when possible.

What challenges did you face coming to NC State in terms of finding your voice and place on campus? How have you evolved since freshman year as more of an introverted person to now feeling confident and comfortable on campus as a senior?

It was extremely intimidating to come to NC State as someone from a small town. I went from having a high school graduating class of 30 people to attending a CH101 class with over 200 people. To be honest, it made me feel quite small and unsure of where my place would be at NC State. I found myself questioning who I was and what I needed to be in order to be “successful” while at NC State. I am sure if you asked my fellow classmates from the Class of 2022, they would not remember me speaking up much in our freshman seminar class. It took a few months for me to realize that showing up exactly as who I am was all I needed to do and that my voice was worthy of being heard. I am so grateful to the professional staff at the Goodnight Scholars Program for recognizing my individuality and supporting me in my pursuits. The opportunities they gave me allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone. To this day, I still remember the first time our former director, Jay Perry, called me out randomly in our freshman seminar class to perform a public speaking activity. A few things happened that day: 1. No one called me “Elizabeth” anymore, I am only really referred to as “Liz,” 2. I realized that someone was paying attention to me even when I thought I was under the radar, and 3. Someone believed in my abilities. Small interactions like these continued to build my confidence and I began to seek opportunities on my own, such as successfully applying to the Mayventure: Vancouver trip at the end of my freshman year. It took a lot of time and effort to put myself in uncomfortable situations and find the right people to lean on for support so that I would feel as comfortable in my own skin as I do now. However, it was most definitely worth the trial-and-error. In comparison to my freshman year, I would say that nowadays most people would never consider me an introvert at first-meet, but I have the multiple Myers-Briggs test results to prove it!

Within the realm of education, why did you choose to specifically pursue Science Education? How do you plan to use your Science Education degree after graduation in May? What has the experience been like realizing that the initial post-graduation path you set for yourself looks a little different than you anticipated?

When I realized that I no longer wanted to pursue medicine my freshman year, I went for the next best thing in terms of my passions–loving science and helping people. Science education felt like the best fit for me and I ended up loving the first education class I took. Being a science education major has allowed me to foster my interest for science across multiple disciplines while also learning about human development and relationships. I chose Middle Grades Science as my concentration based off of the quote by Maya Angelou which states, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” As I was deciding on which grade level to teach, I vividly remembered the bad experiences I had during middle school. I could not tell you a lot of the things that I learned, but I can recount in detail the negative feelings that some of my teachers made me feel. Since middle school is such an important developmental age, I felt the need to ensure that others would not have the same experiences as I had in my adolescence. I know that at the end of the day, my students will not necessarily remember that I taught them about relative aging or the carbon cycle, but I sure hope that they remember me as a person who truly believed in their ability to succeed in anything they are passionate about. As I am getting closer to graduating, my plans have shifted again because of various reasons. However, my passions remain the same–I still love science and I still love helping people. I hope to work in other areas of education where I can give students more individualized support, such as counseling or advising. However, I am also open to exploring opportunities within the educational technology field. I really believe that educators should be involved in designing the curriculum and tools that are actively being used in the classroom. Realizing that my post-graduation path looks a little different than anticipated was a really difficult decision. I am still struggling to come to terms with it, but I know that in the long run, following my heart and taking care of myself will not only benefit me, but also the relationships that I foster along the way. 

Can you talk about your experience student-teaching this semester? What have your biggest takeaways been from the experience, and what have your favorite parts been?

Student teaching has definitely been one of the hardest experiences I have ever had while being at NC State. However, it has also been one of my biggest joys in other ways. As an education major, I have always valued and respected the educators within our state, but this semester taught me so much about the endless amount of thankless work that educators really do everyday. As a student teacher, I work a full-time unpaid internship and commute an hour every day to my school. It was a really difficult transition at first since I was no longer able to be actively involved in the Goodnight Scholars Program or at NC State. There are times where I really want to join my friends at an event or to go on campus to study, but I am not able to because of my student teaching schedule. I also have to work on obtaining my licensure and complete my classwork for my senior seminar class outside of my internship. It has been challenging to balance everything, but I have never felt more supported by my family, friends, peers, and mentors to make it to graduation. It is extremely cliché, but I mean it, my students are my favorite part of student teaching. I see them as a source of strength and inspiration during this time. Seeing them slowly become more comfortable with my presence in the classroom and choosing to place trust in me for their learning means the world to me! Forming little connections with them every day and getting to know them more and more as I continue teaching never fails to make me feel satisfied with my work. I always say that middle schoolers have so much power, but they don’t even realize it! I know that the kids I teach are going to become incredible leaders one day and I am grateful that through student teaching, I will be a small part of their journey.

What obstacles have you faced as a first-generation college student? What would your advice be to a high school student who themselves is going to be a first-generation college student?

As a first generation college student, I would say that my biggest challenge was Imposter Syndrome. To this day, I still struggle with the obstacles that come with imposter syndrome. In my equity and education class, we talked about how sometimes as minority students, we often feel grateful to simply have a place at the table and it may be difficult to believe that we can play a bigger role in our community. Through this discussion, I realized that in certain spaces, I would not speak up because I was too afraid to be “too loud” or I felt “unqualified” to speak. However, to my fellow first generation students–do not feel afraid to take up space. Use your voice loud and proud, you may be the inspiration for others to do the same. Find your community and lean on them when you need strength, but also recognize that you alone are accomplished and capable of doing great things. For me, this came through self-reflection and leaning on my family, friends, and community at NC State to work through these feelings. Reaching out to mentors and seeking advice when you need help can be extremely empowering. Do not be afraid to use the resources that are available to you on and off campus!

COVID definitely wreaked havoc on the entire educational world, and NC State was not spared from the pandemic, as classes went online for multiple semesters, and lives were forever altered. What did you learn being in the virtual educational world, and will you take any of those experiences into your own teaching world?

During the pandemic, I had a really interesting perspective on virtual learning. I was on both sides of the experience. I was both a teacher and student during a very unpredictable time. It was extremely difficult attempting to teach my students for the first time with no experience in online school while also having to adjust my lifestyle as a college student to accommodate for my own online learning. Eventually, I was given the opportunity to defer full-time student teaching and I decided that would be best for me. This experience definitely changed aspects of my teaching philosophy. I have always been the kind of person to try and implement things that my favorite educators did for me and stray away from everything else that made my life difficult as a student. With my current students, I am especially understanding of their abilities and struggles as they try to recover from online learning and come back to a “normal” in-person environment. If I struggled as an adult in college to learn online and I am still in the process of recovering, how can I expect my students to have it all together in their first year back to in-person learning? I believe that education should become more holistic–students are much more than their academic abilities and we should accommodate when possible.

You were lucky enough to travel abroad once the pandemic had slowed. Where did you travel abroad, and what was the experience like for you?

I am so grateful for my study abroad experience! It was life-changing and I will never forget all of the memories I made while abroad. My host city was Prague in the Czech Republic, but I had the opportunity to travel across multiple cities and countries in Europe. In total, I went to 8 cities and 6 countries while I was abroad. Never in a million years did I think that I, a low-income first-generation Salvadoran-American from a small city in the middle of North Carolina, would have the chance to do something so incredible. The classes were really interesting and I had the opportunity to learn about so many different cultures and customs. I also had the chance to see numerous historical sites and try new activities and food. I was always really afraid to travel anywhere without my family, let alone live far away for a few months, but study abroad really allowed me to see my own personal growth and potential. This opportunity would have never been possible for me without the support of my friends, family, and mentors. Through scholarships from the Study Abroad Office, the College of Education, and the Goodnight Scholars Program, I was able to fund my experience. I am extremely grateful for the generosity of the university and its donors. Furthermore, the Goodnight Scholars Program allowed me to take the necessary steps in my personal growth to confidently pursue my dream of studying abroad. This experience did not only impact me profoundly, but it also gave my family the opportunity to go to Europe for the first time. My mom and my sister came to visit me during Thanksgiving in Prague and it will definitely be a memory that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I recall vividly a moment between my mom and I in which we exchanged gratitude for one another. I know that for both of my parents, traveling outside of the United States was not always accessible so it was a precious interaction for me. Furthermore, having my older sister who was the one who led my path into higher education come visit me and see how far I had come since she helped me apply to college was extremely special and heartwarming. Overall, studying abroad is the best choice I could have made during my 4 years at NC State!

Reflecting back on the past 4 years at NC State and within the Goodnight Scholars Program, what are you going to miss most? What reflections and memories will you always have from these 4 years?

There is so much I am going to miss about NC State. From having the opportunity to explore interests such as making K-Pop Dance Covers to studying abroad in Europe for a semester–NC State allowed me to pursue experiences outside of my original path. I have always been a hard-working and passionate person, but it took me a long time to realize that I am worthy of good experiences outside of my academic and career aspirations. Not everything you do has to be seen as an “accomplishment.” Doing things just because they feel right and good to you is more than enough. I believe that my time at NC State truly allowed me to understand this. There are no words to describe the immense love I have for the Goodnight Scholars Program. I am truly going to miss the community that believed in me before I believed in myself. Though the pandemic will always put “what-ifs” in my reflections of my college career, it also allowed me to take a step back and recognize what I truly value in my life. With guidance from the Goodnight Scholars Program, I realized that I am the product of the love, grace, and support of others. I do not say this to diminish my own hard work, but I believe that taking a moment to thank those who have helped you along your journey is an integral part of reflecting on your accomplishments. So many people gave me extra chances or believed in me even when I was struggling and that is something I will take with me as I leave my undergraduate career. I will forever be grateful for the little and big memories I have of NC State, whether these memories include short-term connections or long-term friendships that will last past graduation–each one brought me one step closer to the finish line.