It took a conversation – one of those awkward talks that most teenagers will experience at least once – to get Austin Holloway to even consider college.

“When I graduated from high school, I had no intention whatsoever of going to college,” said Holloway, who has been selected as the 2023 Outstanding Senior for the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “Being a first-generation college student, college was never part of my plan, but as most things happen, I met a girl. Her parents were educated, and they said if I was going to date their daughter, I had to at least give it a try.”

That push led Holloway, who is from Abingdon, to enroll at Virginia Highlands Community College, where he took a course in general biology with Kevin Hamed, then a faculty member at the college and now a collegiate associate professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech.

“Kevin asked me, ‘Austin, what do you want to do when you get older?’” said Holloway. “And I said as long as I’m outside, I don’t really care. I enjoy hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking, and if I can do that the rest of my life, I’ll be happy. And he said, ‘You know, Austin, there are jobs like that.’”

Holloway began working as a field technician for Hamed, doing research on four-toed salamanders for a long-term study funded by the Tennessee Valley Authority. When Hamed was hired at Virginia Tech, he encouraged Holloway to apply as a wildlife conservation major.

“Austin had a great work ethic and was incredibly determined,” said Hamed. “He also demonstrated an ability to combine academic and real-world experiences to problem solve issues, which is incredibly valuable in wildlife conservation. Within the first month of class, I knew Austin would be one of the best students I’d ever have the opportunity to teach.”

While Virginia Tech offers routes to admission for students studying at Virginia community colleges, the decision to apply to become a Hokie was another leap toward the unknown for Holloway.

“I put in my application and didn’t even tour the campus,” Holloway said. “I just thought, ‘If this is where the cards fall, that’s where they fall.’ And sure enough, I got in. And now I’m getting ready to graduate.”

Three years, countless experiences

Though Holloway has been a Hokie for just three years, his tally of field and research experiences would be enough to satisfy the college careers of many aspiring naturalists.

Some highlights of his undergraduate experience include:

  • Building artificial habitats and conducting tagging work on eastern hellbenders as the lead technician on a field crew for the Conservation Physiology and Wildlife Ecotoxicology Lab.
  • Placing traps and recording data to determine the range of spongy moths in remote wilderness areas as a quality control inspector for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
  • Participating in two separate research projects exploring the persistence and spread of chronic wasting disease in deer populations throughout Virginia.
  • Utilizing a unique camera trapping system to determine the distribution of least weasels in Virginia, while also incorporating citizen data to better understand population dynamics.
  • Preparing wet specimen samples for the college’s natural history collection to ensure that future wildlife conservation students have access to intact samples for identification and analysis.

“Austin is among the hardest working, conscientious, and thoughtful undergraduates that I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” said wildlife conservation Professor William Hopkins, who hired Holloway to work in the wildlife ecotoxicology lab. “His attention to detail and desire to conduct his work carefully will take him far.”

If fieldwork wasn’t enough, Holloway also cut his teeth in the classroom, serving as a teaching assistant for Alumni Distinguished Professor John Seiler’s dendrology lab for two semesters, where he was singled out for his ability to connect with other students.

“Austin was an outstanding teaching assistant for me,” said Seiler, who teaches in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “He received some of the highest evaluation scores from students I have ever seen, and he was always trying to help them do better, leading many review sessions.”

Holloway’s work ethic and commitment to giving back to others in the college stems from a motivation to make the most of the opportunities he has been given and the challenges he’s taken on.

“When I get up in the morning, I say that I need to go to class,” said Holloway, who has received both the Henry S. Mosby Scholarship and the Michael B. Wagner Scholarship. “Other people can say they don’t feel like getting up, but I can’t choose that option. If I’m physically able to be there, I’m going to be there.”

From transfer student to graduate school

Being from rural Virginia, Holloway was nervous about fitting in at Virginia Tech. Fortunately, he didn’t come alone: at the urging of Hamed, four other students joined Holloway in transferring into the college. All five students will graduate this spring.

“There was a group of us: Nathan, Kalin, Ryan, Tanner, and me,” said Holloway. “When we first got here, I was intimidated. Blacksburg is a huge town compared to where I’m from, and I thought, ’What am I doing here?’ Then I realized that I could drive 20 minutes in any direction and I’d be back in a rural area just like home.”

Holloway, who is minoring in forestry, said having a rural background is an advantage when it comes to communicating with people living in the areas where wildlife and forestry research often take place.

“A skill set that I see people from rural areas bringing to the table is that we have an easier time gaining access or carrying on a conversation with a person living where we grew up,” Holloway said. “I can say, ‘I know you need to farm for a living, but can we maybe get the cows further away from a stream?’ And people tend to take that better if you’re from the area.”

Hamed said Holloway is one example of the diverse backgrounds that students bring to the college:

“We have students from larger urban and suburban areas, and we have students like Austin who come to Virginia Tech from rural areas,” Hamed said. “All of them work collaboratively to create solutions to many challenges facing our natural resources, while striving to understand each other’s perspective. Much of Virginia’s biodiversity is found in the southwestern portion of the state, and having students such as Austin sharing their experiences enriches the education of everyone in the college.”

Upon graduation, Holloway will be attending graduate school in the forestry department, where he will study crop tree release options for private landowners with Seiler and Jennifer Gagnon, coordinator of the Virginia Forest Landowner Education Program.

“I’ll be helping to develop a guide for landowners, to help them better manage their private forests,” Holloway explained. “Crop tree release is a technique that they can implement with little guidance: if a landowner has a certain goal where they want to aid the growth of a specific tree or species of trees, we can show them how to clear space around it to help achieve their forest goals.”

The project aligns with Holloway’s ambition to one day work in rural communities, helping people maintain the spaces and places that he loves.

“I’d like to do habitat management work for my career, either as a private worker or for a state agency,” Holloway said. “I think the best way I can have an impact is to work on habitats, and working with private landowners is a critical part of improving those spaces.”

While his years on campus have changed the trajectory of his life, Holloway still has deep roots to the part of Virginia that are further south and west from Blacksburg, and he takes pride in his rural upbringing.

“The No. 1 thing I get when I go back home is: ‘Ah, the educated boy is back,’” Holloway said. “So I make sure to tell them I haven’t forgotten where I came from.”

And what about the girl – her name is Abby Holmes – who prompted the awkward conversation that started Holloway down the path to college all those years ago?

Holloway asked her to marry him in early March of this year. She said yes.

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