Morehead Scholarship finalist powers through tough times

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Carleigh Gentry, a senior at Chatham Central, was a nominee for UNC's Morehead-Cain Scholarship.
Carleigh Gentry, a senior at Chatham Central, was a nominee for UNC's Morehead-Cain Scholarship.
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After forging through a pandemic and personal tragedy, Carleigh Gentry is looking forward to a bright and hopeful future.

The Chatham Central High School senior was a finalist for the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship. While she didn’t receive the honor — it would have covered all expenses for four years of undergraduate study at UNC-Chapel Hill — she forged strong friendships in the process and still plans to enroll in UNC next fall, where she will begin pre-pharmacy studies.

And this week, Gentry started an internship at Siler City Pharmacy, the first steps in her journey to a career in life sciences.

She comes by her devotion to science naturally. Gentry’s mother, Maria, is a quality systems and compliance director at Pfizer and her father had a long career in the pharmaceutical industry as a scientist, most recently working in gene therapy.

He died of cancer last September.

“When I was at the hospital with my dad, I watched the pharmacists who were working with clinical medicine and new cancer drugs,” Gentry said in a Zoom interview. “That really spoke to me, and I decided that’s what I want to do — either work in a hospital giving out these drugs or work in the lab creating them.”

Gentry’s twin sisters, Lucy and Marisa are also in the “family business,” pursuing degrees in life sciences at Western Carolina University.

If science is in Gentry’s DNA, then helping people is in her heart. She has spent most of her growing up years volunteering at Bear Creek’s Meroney United Methodist Church Food Pantry alongside her dad, who was the pantry’s leader for about eight years, she said.

“This past December, I organized the Carl Gentry Memorial food drive in honor of my dad on his first birthday in heaven,” she said.

The drive raised over $2,000 and thousands of cans of food for the food pantry. The food pantry used the money to buy Christmas turkeys for underserved families.

“Doing the food drive made me really happy, because it made his first birthday without us feel meaningful, and the day was more cherished than depressing,” she said.

Gentry, who turned 18 last week, has a 4.8 weighted GPA. She plays volleyball and basketball and is a high jumper on Chatham Central’s track team. She also finds time for student government leadership roles, serving as executive board president at her school, a position that has taught her lessons in leadership.

“I’ve learned that to be a leader, you can’t do it alone,” she said. “You have to rely on everyone, and it takes a team to get something accomplished.”

If her role as president of her school taught her about leadership, the COVID-19 pandemic taught her about persistence, tenacity and resilience. She also learned about how technology can bring people together during tough times.

“One of our major efforts during COVID-19 was trying to keep the student body engaged over computers, and keeping everyone’s spirits up was hard,” Gentry said.

One of the student body’s biggest technological feats was planning homecoming during the pandemic. The kids held their planning meetings on Zoom and crafted a hybrid homecoming both in-person and livestreamed on the network the school uses to broadcast sports.

“The homecoming was outside on the football field,” she said. “We were spaced apart and we had a limited number of guests, but we also broadcasted it for everyone.”

Growing up in a close-knit family, Gentry had to dig even deeper when her father’s illness and death followed on the heels of the pandemic. She recalls sitting in her guidance counselor’s office, filling out college applications and applying for scholarships shortly after he passed away. She doesn’t know how she did it — crediting teachers and a guidance counselor for helping.

“My dad passed away September 6, 2021, and I had to turn my materials in for the Morehead the week after,” she said. “I had such an amazing support system that helped, and I got it turned in at the very last minute.”

Gentry counts among that support team Laurie Paige, a national developer for Advancement Via Individual Determination. She credits her AP teacher, Heather Brooks, for “helping me every step of the way through the hard times of COVID and my dad passing away.”

She also appreciates her guidance counselor Sandra Young, who helped her with college applications and the Morehead-Cain Scholarship paperwork.

Of her entire support team, Gentry says her mother is her role model and “the one person in my life that I really look up to.”

“My mom didn’t really have a lot when she was a child, but she worked hard, starting at age 15, graduated from college, and raised my sisters and me,” Gentry said. “Today, her career and her work really motivates me.”

In a time when many teenagers like Gentry are dealing with full schedules, high expectations and many losses that the pandemic brought about, anxiety runs deep.

Gentry, who is highly organized, held her day planner in front of the camera on her computer screen to show her schedule in March. Every day was packed with notes and appointments and it’s key for enabling her to keep up with her busy life.

“I have to practice time management and I learned to write everything in my planner, because if I didn’t, I would get so anxious about it,” she said.

Gentry learned to reach out to teachers, friends, and family for support, and in turn, supports friends going through the same things.

“I have learned it helps to tell someone when you need help and guidance,” she said. “I’m not ashamed to say that I see a therapist, and shifting from having everything buried inside to expressing when I need support has helped me the most.”

Soon Gentry will say goodbye to her high school friends and teachers as she prepares to enter college in Chapel Hill. It is a bittersweet time.

“I’m sad that I will be leaving my high school friends, but I’m looking forward to this next chapter in my life,” she said.

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