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Elementary Education Student Taylor Rowland ‘22 is First Recipient of Scholarship Honoring Teaching Professor Valerie Faulkner

Taylor Rowland '22 leading a lesson at A.B. Combs Elementary School.

Pat McKee and Julie Russo knew they wanted to combine their passions for Wolfpack athletics and the field of education through the creation of an endowed scholarship. They just weren’t sure what to name it — not until Pat McKee showed his wife an article about how her longtime friend, Valerie Faulkner, a teaching professor in the NC State College of Education, was adapting to online instruction. In the article, Russo spotted a photo of Faulkner sitting under a tent in the rain, all to see her students in person as they dropped off their assignments.

“That’s my friend,” said Russo. “That’s who she is.”

McKee and Russo decided on a name — creating the Valerie N. Faulkner Scholarship Endowment, which benefits a College of Education student athlete, with a preference for elementary education majors. While Faulkner gives all the credit to McKee and Russo for the endowment’s creation, she appreciates her friend making her the scholarship’s face.

“It was a really kind thing for Julie to do,” Faulkner said. 

The endowment is already making a difference. Its first recipient is Taylor Rowland ‘22, a senior elementary education major on the Wolfpack volleyball team, who received a $10,000 scholarship. Not only has Rowland found success on the court— she was recently named ACC Player of the Week—but she’s also making an impact in the classroom, spending a number of hours a week at A.B. Combs Elementary School to prepare for her student teaching next semester.

“She is a natural leader and is able to harness that skill set to inspire young children to strive for success,” said Marcia Davis, who acts as Rowland’s supervisor. “She has the ability to form meaningful relationships, bring the curriculum to life and encourage her students to learn and grow.  She will continue to be a gift to the field of education.”

For Taylor, who battled through multiple injuries to continue her volleyball career, the scholarship is a meaningful recognition of the effort she gives both on and off the court.

“I really appreciate them choosing me and just recognizing the hard work I’ve put into this,” said Rowland. “Being a teacher is definitely what I want to do with my life, and I want to make everyone involved with the scholarship proud.”

Finding ways to support students and teachers has been a consistent part of Faulkner and Russo’s friendship since they first met, more than a decade ago. Russo, then an elementary school teacher, attended a mathematics training program led by Faulkner, who at the time was working for the Wake County Public School System. At that training, Russo discovered her passion for effective mathematics instruction, and Faulkner’s encouragement made all the difference.

“She saw something in me that no one else did,” Russo said.

Russo would go on to work with Faulkner and create a new way of looking at story problems in mathematics called Structures of Equality, which encourages students to see the relationships embedded in math stories. The method was so strong that the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction updated their federally-funded, Foundations of Mathematics training to reflect her work.

“Julie has walked the walk and really made a difference in kids’ lives,” said Faulkner. “Anything that we can do to help other people be as good as she was is a worthy cause.”

Russo found new ways to make a difference when she married NC State alumnus Pat McKee, who is a founder of McKee Homes. Since the company’s inception, a portion of every home sold goes to the Joe McKee Memorial Alzheimer’s Fund, which Russo now oversees in her role of vice president of community embrace. 

“Everybody has something to give back,” Russo said. “It’s important for me to do just that, to give my time and my talent and to donate where I can. And it’s just hugely important to who I am.”

Pat McKee and Julie Russo with their family.

Though she’s no longer in the classroom, Russo has stayed engaged with the field of education and stayed in touch with Faulkner, at times delivering guest lectures in Faulkner’s classes. 

“Both Julie and I are committed to the work of teaching, and we’re both committed to supporting teachers where they live,” Faulkner said. “It’s been easy to keep up with her because we’re both passionate about supporting teachers and being valuable to teachers.”

Faulkner and Russo both see the scholarship endowment as just that, another way to be valuable to teachers.

“It’s so hard to become a teacher because it costs a lot to go to college,” Faulkner said. “I see my undergraduates, many of whom struggle to pay the bills, work two or three jobs. So any time we can do something to help support young teachers, I’m all for it.”

Faulkner meets with students on the Court of North Carolina.

And the endowment’s athletics component — stemming from Pat McKee’s love of everything and anything Wolfpack sports — also strikes a chord with Faulkner, who played for the Duke University women’s golf team in the 1980s. Not only did she compete against Page Marsh, who now coaches the NC State University women’s golf team, but she was also part of the first women’s golf team from Duke to make the NCAA tournament. So, Faulkner understands the joys and challenges that come with being a student athlete.

“I think about Taylor, and she is right now in the classroom, in the elementary school, playing a sport, working on her licensure project and come January, she is going to essentially be a teacher. They are in charge of their class for six to eight weeks,” Faulkner said. “That is rigorous. It is hard work.” 

For Rowland, that hard work is worth it because of the difference she is able to make in the lives of her students.

“I love the kids,” Rowland said. “I’m with third graders right now, and they’re absolutely just adorable. They’re excited to learn, and they really just make it a lot of fun, and they make it exciting to come to school. I think all kids, no matter who they are, where they come from, they all deserve an equal chance of education opportunities in school. Just seeing them get excited when they get a problem right, it’s just a special moment between the student and us as teachers. I know a lot of teachers say that, but the kids really make it all worth it.”

Rowland is appreciative of everyone who made the scholarship possible and helped her pursue her goal of becoming a teacher. 

“I just want to give them a big hug,” Rowland said. 

Soon, she’ll have an opportunity to do just that. Faulkner and her wife, Jenn Smith, have made plans to meet up with McKee and Russo at an NC State volleyball game and watch Rowland play.