Growing up hunting, hiking and fishing in the woods of rural Washington County, Austin Holloway said he never expected to become a college graduate.
One of more than 7,000 students in Virginia Tech’s spring graduating class this week, the first-generation college student from Abingdon said he was never pressured to pursue higher education. At least, not until he met a girl.
“When I graduated high school, I had no intention of going to college. I thought I was done with school,” Holloway said. “I met a girl my senior year of high school, and she and her family changed every bit of that for me.”
That girl’s parents — now his soon-to-be in-laws — encouraged Holloway to attend Virginia Highlands Community College for a two-year degree. From there, it was a community college professor who helped Holloway to a pivotal realization:
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“Wow, I can have a career where I’m outside researching wildlife, or working with landowners, working in forestry, in the places that I like to spend time,” Holloway said. “And then I got to Virginia Tech and really realized all the career possibilities that are available in natural resources. I never knew any of those jobs or opportunities had ever existed.”
Holloway graduates Thursday afternoon with a bachelor of science in wildlife conservation. He’s already started preparing for his next step at Virginia Tech — a graduate school thesis focused on forestry, for his master’s degree.
“I don’t want to leave the animals behind, but I think a broader way for me to have the biggest impact is to focus on forestry,” Holloway said. “I want to work with private landowners in rural areas, just like I’m from, and help manage their habitat.”
Because more than 70% of land in the United States is held by private landowners, he said working with private individuals on habitat management is vital to conserving all kinds of wildlife species. Owning a habitat management consulting company is his ultimate dream, he said.
“Historically, land has been the most valuable thing that people can own,” Holloway said. “People want to have that nice piece of property that’s got good ecological value, but also an aesthetic value.”
He said people from communities such as his often are not pressured to strive for college, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But he said people shouldn’t feel limited in what they can accomplish, especially not because of where they’re from.
“I was a kid from a rural community who got an opportunity that not a lot of people get, and I’m super appreciative of that,” Holloway said. “I hope there’s a kid, or a kid’s parents, sitting there reading this who say, ‘hey, you should do it. If he could do it, anybody could do it.’”
Holloway said people should take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way, and be unafraid to take chances. That’s what life is about, and that’s the attitude embodied by his class of 2023 peers, who achieved their educations even in the face of coronavirus-related disruptions, he said.
“We’re the next generation that’s going to make a difference and change the world,” Holloway said. “Now is the time to show them that everything they’ve prepared us for is exactly what we’re going to go and do.”
Virginia Tech graduation ceremonies proceed through Sunday. The main university commencement event is in Lane Stadium at 8:30 a.m. Friday.