Francess Blake and Alexis Roach are just 6 years old in the photo, hugging each other tightly, wearing fancy white lace dresses at their kindergarten graduation, smiling “this is my best friend” smiles.
Sixteen years later in a new photo the smiles are the same and so is the hug. They’re still wearing white, but now they’re donning lab coats as part of the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 2023.
“It’s definitely even more special being here with each other,” says Roach. “We’re started off as little girls not really knowing what we wanted to do. Now we’re both doing something that we’re so passionate about and we get to do it together.”
Roach pauses and looks over at her friend. There’s a few seconds of silence.
“Yes,” Blake says softly as she slowly forms a smile. “Same for me.”
Then they both laugh the exact same way, at just about the same time.
They have that rare, lucky 20-plus-years friendship that begins just barely out of diapers — they met in preschool — and only strengthens from there. It formed from growing up 10 minutes from each other, or 5 minutes if you drove fast enough, says Roach. It grew from taking the same animal science class in high school where they realized how much they both loved the field.
It endured through frequent FaceTime sessions while they went to different colleges and from the Waffle House meet-ups that became a tradition when they came back home in Dover, Del., while on college breaks.
It’s a relationship built on encouragement and similar drive, solidified from commiserating over the stress of applying to veterinary schools and then experiencing the joy of getting into the NC State CVM at the same time.
“We motivate each other,” says Blake. “During the application cycle, we were always back and forth, just trying to help each other succeed. We have each other’s backs.”
Roach and Blake are on different academic tracks as they begin their time at the CVM. Blake applied to the college noting a focus interest in both small and large animals. She conducted parasitology research while as an undergraduate and hopes to do research of some kind at the CVM.
She gravitated to the CVM in part because it offered her that mixed animal focus, and she determined the school was the best fit for her when she visited during a weekend event for admitted students.
“I just fell in love with the school,” says Blake. “It came from talking with classmates, faculty and student services. Everyone was so welcoming. It felt like home.”
Roach was a part of the Laboratory Animal Scholar Program while at North Carolina A&T State University, a collaboration between A&T and the CVM where top A&T students are selected for up to two positions in the incoming CVM class. Right now, Roach has a lab animal focus, but is remaining flexible.
She received valuable mentorship from 2015 CVM graduate Andrea Gentry-Apple, assistant professor of animal sciences at A&T. It was Gentry-Apple who presented Roach with her white coat at the CVM’s annual event before the fall semester.
“Even at the White Coat Ceremony, she was giving advice,” says Roach. “She told us we were meant to be here and don’t let anybody make us think otherwise. It’s hard for me to just thank her, and I always thank her. But I never feel like it’s enough just to thank her.”
Now when thinking of their future career plans, Roach and Blake, are less concerned about titles and more about how they want to become mentors themselves.
“I really want to just be in a position where I can help anyone who wants to be in the same position as me,” says Blake. “As long as I’m in a position to help I will be happy with that. I want to be one of those people who open their arms.”
“We want to help students who want to become something, just like we wished for,” adds Roach.
And while at the CVM, they’ll help each other. They will continue to share advice and study tips and frustrations and happiness, they said. They’re also now sharing space as roommates for the first time.
So what exactly does it feel like, knowing that for the next four years they’ll be able to help each other through it all?
“I think it’s a comforting feeling for me that I’ll be here with a person who I have known for so many years,” says Roach. “It’s someone who I know will support me throughout this entire process. Everyone told me to make sure I have support system, make sure I have somebody who’s going to be there for me. I was like, ‘Oh, I already have that.’”
Roach looks over at her friend and there’s another pause.
“I forgot the question,” Blake says finally. “Yes, I also feel comforted.”
Then, in sync as always, there’s more of that shared laughter.
“Uh, I think you can put down the same answer for both of us,” Roach says.
~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine