When Randy Woodson became chancellor in 2010, he issued a challenge to NC State University’s alumni networks to grow their local bases.
In Beaufort County, Paige Harris and her friend, Lalla Hodges Sidbury, put their heads together and came up with a plan for a fun, laid-back oyster roast to bring together their area’s alumni community. That first year, roughly 75 people attended, and the pair hosted the event at Sidbury’s home.
Thanks to their efforts, the chancellor recognized the Beaufort County Alumni Network as the Alumni Network of the Year. Woodson attended the oyster roast and enjoyed it so much that he promised to return each year. And each year, he does – often bringing other guests from the university, such as NC State basketball great Dereck Whittenburg or head baseball coach Elliott Avent.
“It really swells your Wolfpack pride when you can have a causal conversation over a beer and oysters with the chancellor of one of the leading research universities in the nation,” Harris said. “Folks in eastern North Carolina appreciate what the university does for them, and they like having a connection to its leadership.”
The event has grown each year, with about 250 people in attendance this past January. Harris is largely to thank for making it all happen – from a feast of oysters, shrimp and seafood chowder, to the music of a local band and the fun of take-home Wolfpack giveaways.
Sadly, Lalla Sidbury passed away from cancer around the time of the fourth oyster roast. It now takes place at the home of Steve and Pam Griffin, whose son is an NC State graduate. The Griffins host the group in their “barn,” but as Harris says, “to call their place a barn is to give a false impression – it’s too comfy to be a barn.”
“We try to do something a little different each year – whether it is the food, the entertainment or the guest speakers. It just depends on what we can arrange,” Harris said.
The event is only one of the ways that Harris, who grew up an NC State fan thanks to her alumnus father, conveys energy and excitement about the university not just to alumni but to future students as well. She currently serves as vice president of the Alumni Association Board of Directors and, in January, will become board president.
“I’ve always loved getting the alumni magazine and reading that,” Harris said. “On the alumni association board, when you see everything in action, and see the leadership, it’s really inspiring.”
Her role as board president isn’t Harris’s first leadership role at NC State. In the late 1980s, she enrolled as a student to study political science and history. She became heavily involved in student government, serving in the student senate. She also served the Student Government Association as assistant attorney general, then executive assistant attorney general, before being elected to the attorney general position. She left NC State before graduating, feeling uncertainty about her career path, but she credits NC State with shaping her future.
“I might not have finished there, but I really learned who and what I wanted to be in my time there,” she said. “It was a great place to be.”
Harris went on to graduate elsewhere, and earned a graduate degree in English women’s history, later teaching at Wake Technical Community College. Her husband, Scott, a graduate of NC State’s College of Natural Resources, then asked her to move back to eastern North Carolina, where she had grown up.
“I came back kicking and screaming, but it was the best move we made,” she said. “I love eastern North Carolina.”
She taught history online for several years, a job that allowed her to stay home with her two children when they were young. Later, she ended up going into business with her brother. They now operate multiple locations of their family insurance agency.
Harris said she wasn’t as involved with NC State when her children were small, but now that they’re older – her son enrolled as a freshman at the university this fall – she’s spreading energy and enthusiasm for NC State to alumni and prospective students alike.
She has led the Wolfpack Welcome for more than 10 years, and said she finds it very fulfilling to welcome freshmen, then see what they accomplish in their time at NC State.
Among her financial contributions to the university, Harris honors Sidbury by giving to the Lalla Hodges Sidbury Memorial Scholarship Endowment, which supports NC State students from the Beaufort County area based on merit and financial need.
Giving back is something that comes naturally from the way she was raised.
“I got it from my parents – if you are very blessed, it’s your duty to give back,” Harris said. “When I look at what’s meaningful to me, NC State is one of those things.”
And giving back is about pride, too.
“I think the more you become involved with NC State and its great traditions, the depth and impact of what you’ve accomplished at NC State as a student becomes even greater, and it inspires you to give more so that the next generation of students can feel that same pride,” Harris said. “The more you give, the more you want to give.”