MEET THE GRADS: Like brother, like sister: Country Roads to take Ohio siblings to the Rocky Mountains
(Editor’s Note: As Commencement nears, WVUToday is featuring some of the University’s most dedicated graduates. Here is the story of two of those students.)
Siblings Steve and Maddi Neff grew up in an Ohio farm town where they say the cows outnumber the people.
Suffice it to say, West Virginia University has more people than cows.
But when Steve got his first taste of WVU as a high school student experiencing a Mountaineer football weekend, he called his mother that Sunday to tell her of this whole new world.
“I was dead-set on going to a private college,” Steve said. “A friend had a ticket to catch a football game at WVU and I went with him. The next day, I took a tour of the campus. I called my mom and said, ‘Hey mom. I’m going to school here.’ And it was the best decision of my life.”
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In May, that decision will lead Steve and his sister Maddi across the stage at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design commencement ceremony. They will join about 4,300 other graduates receiving their degrees May 9-11.
Steve, 24, will receive his master’s degree in agriculture, natural resources and design. Two days later, he’ll go to Montana to fight wildfires with the U.S. Forest Service.
Maddi, 22, will gain her bachelor’s degree in agribusiness management and rural development. She, too, is heading to the Rocky Mountains – to Colorado, where she will work at horse ranches.
The Neffs’ journey to WVU began with Steve, who graduated high school with 90 classmates. To him, the WVU campus was a megalopolis. Yet it still had a hint of charm and quaintness like his native Johnstown, Ohio.
"I was dead-set on going to a private college. A friend had a ticket to catch a football game at WVU and I went with him. The next day, I took a tour of the campus. I called my mom and said, 'Hey mom. I'm going to school here.' And it was the best decision of my life."
— Steve Neff
In Johnstown, everyone knows one another. The same could be said for WVU, just on a much larger scale.
Steve majored in criminology and became a resident assistant at Boreman Hall, where his “social network exploded.” He liked WVU so much that he stuck around for grad school.
“To me, it was a shock coming from a small farm town and going to a big school out-of-state,” he said. “People said I’d be lucky to make it through my sophomore year. Statistics show that the odds for a small-town student to drop out their freshmen year are high. For me, that was not an option.”
As Steve worked his way through college as an undergrad, his sister would visit on weekends.
The WVU landscape had a similar effect on her.
Maddi, who attended a private college after high school, realized she, too, needed to let country roads take her to Morgantown.
“Private school wasn’t for me,” she said. “I loved visiting Steve at WVU and would come down for as many weekends as possible. There was a special feeling I got every time I came down there.”
Maddi transferred to WVU in 2011 as a fashion major. After two years, her love of horses led her to weave agribusiness into her studies.
“I had a tough time deciding what to do,” she recalled. “I knew I wanted to be more agriculturally-focused. I want a small farm of my own someday, and you don’t get that knowledge from being a fashion major. So I branched into an agribusiness degree.
“I always liked horses, and I liked fashion, too. The faculty in the Davis College opened my eyes to what I could do. Who knew you could merge fashion with horses?”
For the past year, the Neff siblings have found themselves in familiar territory – living together under the same roof.
They wouldn’t want to spend their final year at WVU any other way.
“Steve and I have always been close,” Maddi said. “It’s just us two siblings. Our parents made sure we played nice with each other. So when he left to come to WVU, I was devastated.
“After I moved here, everything was so much more comfortable and relaxed. People are amazed and say, ‘You can stand to live with your brother?’”
No filter exists between this brother and sister.
“With Maddi, I can say, ‘Go take the trash out,’” Steve said. “She says to me, ‘Steve, stop playing your guitar.’”
In the same unpredicted way the Neffs landed at WVU, they both had no idea they’d end up West following graduation.
"I always liked horses, and I liked fashion, too. The faculty in the Davis College opened my eyes to what I could do. Who knew you could merge fashion with horses?"
— Maddi Neff
During his sophomore year, Steve met a friend of a friend at a barbeque who told him he worked for the U.S. Forest Service fighting wildfires. Steve looked at him for a few seconds in amazement and asked, ‘Where do I sign up?’
Steve has spent the last three summers working for the Forest Service based out of Clearwater National Forest in Idaho. Those experiences pushed him into a career in emergency response work, as he will begin his post-college career in Missoula, Mont.
“There’s a rush,” he said. “It’s go, go, go. You grab your gear and hike for a couple hours until you find the smoke.
“Emergency response work is something I want to keep close to my heart.”
For Maddi, Fort Collins, Colo. is her destination. She, too, became acquainted with the West as an undergrad, having spent summers working at horse ranches.
“I fell in love with a guy out there and we’re building a home there,” she said. “I plan to return to work at some ranches and hope to someday have my own horse ranch.
“Steve and I didn’t plan it this way. He went out to fight fires and loved it. I thought I’d go work on a ranch, and I loved it. Both of us were, ‘OK. This is what we want to do.’ Sorry mom and dad.”
Story by Jake Stump
Photos by Scott Lituchy
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