For a leader who was NC State’s first female student body president, it’s a bit odd to hear Cathy Sterling say she can’t exactly remember why she got involved in student government. She said in an interview for NCSU Libraries’ Student Leadership Initiative, a project showcasing former Wolfpack student leaders, that she had never really been involved in student government and had always viewed it as nothing more than something North Carolina governors had on their résumés.
But then 1970 happened, and people wanted some change to the status quo on campus.
“It was a just a period of time when people were like, ‘We need a change,’ like that and ‘Why don’t you do that?’ and I’m like, well, okay,” Sterling said.
One of Sterling’s chief concerns was the administration’s use of student fees. She saw leaders directing money to programs like the Friends of the College concert series, but doing so without seeking any input from the students. So she felt compelled to make that a focus in her administration after she won as a write-in candidate in 1970.
But she would be confronted with push back to her historic election. “I was really naive about hostility,” she said in the interview. “I was raised in a religion that was very gentle and very loving and very positive, so it was like a bath in cold water to look at somebody and go, ‘But you don’t like me just because of the opinion I hold. I mean you really, really don’t like me. You’re really angry at me?'”
Sterling talked about how she dealt with such emotions in her interviews with the Student Leadership Initiative. She also talked about how she saw the student union’s mission transform and how she transferred to NC State after a disastrous freshman year at UNC-Chapel Hill as a music major.
“I didn’t know music theory,” she said, “and I look back and I think who in the world thought this was a good idea? Someday, I’ll write it up because it was the classic freshman experience of everything going wrong.”