Perspectives Online

New alumna offers philosophy of fearlessness at fall commencement

Recent CALS graduate and future veterinarian Austin Duncan already uses her zoology education in her work as a veterinary technician and a volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation refuge.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

Austin Duncan earned the nickname "Bug" when she was 5 years old. She had been watching a colony of ants working for more than an hour with the same keen interest that glues most kids to the television. When her little sister wandered over and stomped on the ants, Duncan was devastated, earning the nickname from her father and revealing at a very young age what would become her life's passion - caring for animals, great and small.

Today, Duncan has transformed that interest into an extremely successful undergraduate career at N.C. State University, marked by a double major in environmental science and zoology and the distinction of being named class valedictorian. At the university's December 2005 commencement ceremony, she delivered a speech with a theme that channeled the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt: Always do things that you are afraid to do.

"I've always been a leader, but sometimes, especially before college, I was succeeding by sticking to things I was good at," Duncan says. "But I remember in one of my first classes at N.C. State, our professor said that at every opportunity, we should do something we were afraid of. That really struck me."

In her speech, Duncan shared this advice with her classmates, saying, "This has truly shaped who I am, by pushing me to test my limits and finding that my life, as are your lives, is truly limitless."

She challenged her classmates "to take every opportunity, to take a chance, to conquer a fear, to live our lives through action and learn through experience."

Pretty wise words for a 22-year-old. They come from experience, she says.

While still a student at Vance High School in Charlotte, Duncan began to think seriously about her career, and she knew she wanted to be a veterinarian. Yet she also felt a pull to be different, not to follow the herd. It was then that she discovered a growing interest in conservation and environmental science, and she entered N.C. State to pursue a major in this area. But it wasn't long before her real passion resurfaced and her journey took a twist.

"In my sophomore year, I started taking zoology classes that had nothing to do with my major, because they sounded so cool," she says. "And, then, I just couldn't deny it: Working with animals was what I wanted to do."

So she added zoology to her major, excelled in her classes and participated as a research assistant in a major study (since published in Nature magazine) on migratory birds at a South Carolina preserve.

"I had a strong interest in conservation, wildlife and environmental science," she says. "But, I still wanted to be a vet. So, I thought I could combine my interests to help animals in a different way. I want to be a different kind of vet, working with wildlife or exotic animals."

An over-achiever to the core, Duncan chaired the 2004 "Pack Howl" homecoming committee, served as president and captain of her club lacrosse team, participated in the University Scholars Council, worked as a community assistant for University Housing and served as a student ambassador to the N.C. State Alumni Association. She also volunteered as head coach of the girls' lacrosse team at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, leading them to the state playoffs three years in a row.

Since graduating in December, Duncan finds her days are as packed as ever. She's working as a veterinary technician at Clayton Animal Hospital and volunteering at the Piedmont Wildlife Center, a rehabilitation refuge for injured or sick animals. She hopes to enroll in vet school next fall. Her top choice: N.C. State.

So, out of all her experiences, what's the scariest thing Duncan has ever done?

"Give that speech," she says, with a laugh. "I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't stressed out in college, or felt overwhelmed, but I got through it, and now I can look back and say I did it. I feel like I can do anything."

- Suzanne Stanard