Ashley Lawson ‘18 Aspires To Elevate Education in Rural North Carolina

You can never truly leave home. Hometowns shape us and make us into who we are as people and as professionals. Ashley Lawson’s hometown has given her a sense of purpose she never expected.

When asked about her plans for the future, Lawson ‘18 is quick to mention her small, rural hometown of Prestonville, N.C. as the primary motivator behind her double major in mathematics and math education. This was not always Lawson’s intention—she began college in mechanical engineering with the goal of designing roller coasters. However, after many conversations about the struggles of rural North Carolinians and her own experiences, Lawson decided that she wanted to help others from this background reach their full potential.

“I have an absolute passion for education and I would easily say that I have found my calling,” said Lawson. “I love to help others realize their talents.”

As part of her Park freshman seminar, Lawson attended the annual Emerging Issues Forum, where she met Cabarrus County Schools Chief of Staff, Robert Kirk. Lawson accepted Kirk’s invitation to tour his schools, and later took on a summer internship there that focused on STEM programs. Kirk has become a mentor for Lawson, who is eager to apply lessons learned from Cabarrus County to other school systems where she might teach in the future.

That same summer, Lawson also volunteered with Stokes County’s Sandy Ridge Elementary School as a teacher assistant. There, she helped prepare 4th and 5th graders for their end-of-grade exams in math and assisted with a STEM-based project wherein students built bottle rockets.

“I fell in love with all the students,” she said. “They are still ‘my kids’ and I have continued to follow them throughout their educational careers.”

Lawson’s interest in education naturally led her to try her hand at research. As a sophomore she worked with the SMART Collaborative, an interdisciplinary team of researchers and educators dedicated to making schools places where students want to be and want to learn. Lawson partnered with NC State associate professor of educational psychology DeLeon Gray, and Lauren Bryant of the William & Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation to determine how to make academic research more accessible to teachers. They found one simple solution is to blog about research articles, thereby providing busy teachers quick summaries of key points. Lawson contributed a blog post to the SMART Collaborative website.

“I am involved in research because I am just so curious about how to best educate my students,” she said. “I started with educational psychology to learn more and create knowledge on how to motivate students.”

Ever open to opportunities for broadening her awareness of the contexts in which students learn, in spring 2016 Lawson participated in an Alternative Service Break focused on dialect-based discrimination. Her personal experiences as well as others’ she witnessed over the years afforded Lawson a personal connection with this topic.

“Language discrimination is the backdoor to discrimination,” Lawson explained. “We spend time talking about racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, but all of our identities are encompassed in our language. When we discriminate based on dialect and language, we discriminate against every identity a person has.”

As a result of this trip, Lawson was inspired to become a NC State Language Diversity Ambassador. In this capacity, she presented alongside Jeffrey Reaser—co-author of Talkin’ Tar Heel and the Voices of North Carolina curriculum—to teach others about language discrimination.

Now in her junior year, Lawson is combining her interest in rural education with qualitative analysis. As a Marian Drane Graham Scholar, she completed a six-week summer program addressing the relationship between higher education and government. In addition to serving the community and meeting with legislators in Washington, D.C., Lawson interned with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. For her capstone project, Lawson is studying rural students’ decisions regarding where to enroll in college compared to those of their urban counterparts, specifically focusing on the distance of the universities from their homes.

Beyond research, Lawson is growing her skills as a future educator by serving as a College of Education Ambassador and as president of the North Carolina Council for Teachers of Mathematics Kappa Student Chapter. For fun, the longtime dancer directs The Production, a hip-hop crew at NC State, and teaches jazz and ballet classes at Stage Door Dance—which is owned by fellow Park Scholar Chasta Hamilton Calhoun ‘07. Lawson is grateful for connections like this one, and for the breadth of opportunities she’s pursued as part of the Park Scholarships.

“It changed my life path entirely,” Lawson said of the Park Scholarships program. “As a result of the people that I have interacted with and scholarship itself, I can now say that I have found the thing that makes my heart sing and that fills a gaping hole in society. I will absolutely make a difference in the lives of others.”

Story by Caroline Taney