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Natavia Ray

Internship Unveils Possibility Beyond Plans for Natavia Ray

Natavia Ray came to Shaw University with a few of life’s milestones already under her belt. Now 32, Ray is a non-traditional student. She is married and the mother of two daughters, ages 11 and 8. She has also already earned an associate’s degree from Fayetteville Technical Community College in Fayetteville, NC, and has logged quite a bit of work experience as a dental hygienist.  But dental school is her dream. Ray, a senior at Shaw, is scheduled to graduate in December 2017 with a degree in biology, ready for dental school. That’s just how she planned it: Go back to school for two years to earn a bachelor’s degree, finish dental school and enter the field as Dr. Natavia Ray, DDS.

Ray didn’t know the university’s diligent focus on steering students into internships would add a detour in her plan. “I knew I wanted to come back to school; just get in and get out, and go to dental school,” Ray said. “I didn’t want to do an internship, but Shaw really wants us to get out there.”

Ray was already involved in campus activities. She is Vice President of the Minority Association of Pre-health Students; a member of Shaw’s Honor’s College; and a candidate for the school’s Honors Society, an organization open to students with a 3.2 GPA or higher. Ray also has won some awards: First Place monetary award from the Entomological Society of America Southern Branch, and Second Place in the Collegiate Academy of North Carolina Sciences at Methodist College in Fayetteville.

Reflecting back to her internship in the ecology department at N.C. State University, Ray assures internships are an important step for any student, no matter their age, marital status, life experience or academic accomplishments.

“It’s really good if you want to go to further your education in graduate school, and it helps you determine whether you really want to be in that field of study and work,” Ray said. “I already know I want to go to dental school, but I was still a little interested in being outside. I wanted to see the other side.”

 During the internship, Ray studied the impact our daily living habits and the environment we create – from littering and pollution to global warming – affect insects; specifically, carpenter ants, by testing their immune response to varying habitats.  While they found constraints on urban ants not endured by those in natural forest habitats, the research project has yet to be completed, Ray said. Even so, Ray said, no matter the outcome, “I met a lot of people. You build connections. That was really cool.”

As for the outside work in her field, “I’m a country girl,” said Ray, a native of rural Fayetteville who moved to Raleigh for her husband’s job. “I don’t know if I want to work outside all the time, but it was peaceful and I really enjoyed it.”

Shaw biology professor Dr. Eric Butler is a collaborator in the NC State internship Ray landed. He helped recruit her to apply and guided her through the application process, championing the internship experience because of the world of awareness about a career path and its possibilities. And Butler taught Ray Zoology. This semester, he said, he had hoped to hire Ray to work in his lab, but her schedule doesn’t allow it.

“She’s a very bright young woman and she works hard,” said Butler, one of Shaw’s top researchers. “Natavia also has a really clear idea why she’s in college, so she’s serious; mature and focused.”  That can be an advantage non-traditional students have when competing for internships, said Butler, adding that reality often is contrary to what older students perceive. Butler remembers encouraging Ray to highlight the fact that she’s had “real-life, real-adult” work experience.  “You’ve got some skills to bring to the table that allow you to be really competitive,” he recalls telling her. “That’s something non-traditional students have that others don’t.”

Ray agrees. In fact, this is her message to fellow non-traditional students who think their place at Shaw is in the background:

“Just do it,” she said. “Be open-minded. Internships can teach you a lot. Even though we’re older and we already know a lot, there’s always something more to learn; networking, new information, different experiences you can learn from.” Ray continued, “It’s awesome. It’s amazing. Don’t ever put yourself in a box. Open that box and step outside the box.”