Facing the Unknown

Senior years are full of unknowns, but COVID-19 brought unprecedented challenges to new graduates. For Gwen Toay '20, it led to an unexpected career that gave her the confidence to take the next step for her future.

Story by Nicole Thom-Arens | Illustration by Leah Ecklund | August 31, 2022

In  January 2020, Gwen Toay ’20 was looking forward to her final semester at NDSU. She was involved in several student organizations and a member of the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority, so spring semester began with prospective senior celebrations, events, and formals. There was a lot to look forward to, but everything changed in March in a surreal way.
(Submitted photo)

“It was a Thursday before spring break; I had two classes that day,” Gwen remembered. “I was in my morning class when we got the email from the president saying we were going to virtual learning for two weeks after spring break. Both of my professors were like, ‘This is probably the last time I’m going to see you.'”

Gwen couldn’t believe what they were saying. These were the strategic communication professors she’d had for years. How could this be the end — so abruptly? She continued with her day and went to work at the McGovern Alumni Center. She was a guest service representative at the time and often worked during events in the building. She and her co-workers speculated about the mysterious virus that was sweeping the nation, but no one knew what the future would hold.

“Two weeks later, I didn’t have a job anymore. It was mid-March, and I was terrified,” Gwen said. “I didn’t know what the future was going to look like. As a senior in college, I was trying to figure out what I was going to do after graduation. I was applying for jobs at the time, and they all stopped hiring.”

Without a job or any prospects, Gwen faced financial uncertainty for the first time in her academic career. She immediately applied for funding through NDSU’s Student Emergency Fund, which helped her make rent payments and brought a bit of comfort during a crisis.

“It provided a little bit of a breather during that time when it felt like there wasn’t time to breathe,” Gwen said. “Receiving that aid changed a lot of things for me.”

With support, Gwen was able to face her future — unknown though it may have been. She was healthy and safe, and she had what she needed to finish her coursework virtually and earn her degree. That’s why the Student Emergency Fund was created in 2016, “to provide funds to help students who encounter an unforeseen financial emergency or crisis that would otherwise prevent them from staying in school and progressing toward a degree.”

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students received funding that helped them finish the semester, and since its establishment, the Student Emergency Fund has distributed more than $122,400 to NDSU students in sudden need.

“That funding meant a lot because even with the uncertainty at that time, so many people were still willing to donate to so many students,” Gwen said.

As graduation neared and a 21-year-old Gwen learned to balance the uncertainties around her, she leaned into her natural charisma and optimism and took a chance on a career she never imagined herself in — real estate.

“When I started, it was really hard. It takes a lot of work to find success in that field, and it wasn’t something I planned on doing or necessarily what I wanted to do, but I knew I needed a job and I found myself there. I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Gwen said. “Coming in and not knowing anything and then turning it into a really successful career right out of college, I remember thinking, ‘I could do any job.'”

For  two years, Gwen gave her all to her newfound career in her home city of Fargo, North Dakota. She learned quickly, rebounded from failure, succeeded, and grew her confidence, but she wasn’t following her heart.

During her underclassman years at NDSU, Gwen formed a passion for philanthropy as a Bison Ambassador. She wanted a career in fundraising at a big university.

In May 2022, Gwen accepted a position as a development specialist at the University of Minnesota Foundation working in partnership with the Mesonic Cancer Center and M Health Fairview. Gwen’s mom is a cancer survivor and her grandpa passed away due to cancer in early 2022, so the chance to work in development and fundraise for cancer research was too big an opportunity to pass up.

“I love Fargo; it was really hard to leave,” Gwen said. “My education and my experiences at NDSU have carved out the path of my career. I am only in development and want to be in development because of my experience at NDSU.”

Gwen’s short time living outside her home state has reinforced for her what it means to be from North Dakota.

“When you leave — no matter where you go — you realize, ‘Oh yeah, I’m from a special place.’ The most successful people are the ones who don’t need to be asked to do something; they just work hard. Not everyone has those values.”

The hard work, dedication, and kindness she grew up with in Fargo resonated through her time at NDSU and her first career at Hatch Realty.

Throughout her life, Gwen has practiced showing up, doing the job, and doing it well. She looks back at her time of need with gratitude and is investing in future NDSU students today by making a gift to Bison Ambassadors on Giving Day.

“My hope is that every student who goes to NDSU has a great experience, and if they did, I think it’s important to look back and support the things that made you who you are today,” Gwen said. “Being able to be involved in In Our Hands: The Campaign for North Dakota State University as a student solidified what I wanted to do with my life. Trying to stay involved and make an impact after graduation is really important.”

Numerous crises can impact students throughout their academic career. If you’d like to support the NDSU Student Emergency Fund, visit the NDSU Foundation’s giving page.