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PRTSM Online Master's Program Sparks a New Business for PJ Ray

PJ Ray.

PJ Ray.

Agriculture has always been a part of Patricia Joyce “PJ” Ray’s life. In the Parks, Recreation, Tourism and Sport Management (PRTSM) online master’s program, she found a way to take agriculture to the next level. 

“I grew up on a tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat and livestock farm in Pollocksville, North Carolina. I always knew I wanted to have a career in agriculture,” Ray says. “I came to NC State for the first time in January 2004 as a two-year Agricultural Institute student. I graduated in December 2005 with a Livestock and Poultry Management Associate of Applied Science.”

After graduation, Ray went back to the family farm for a few years. She decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture Education in 2008. While completing her degree, she started working for Onslow County Farm Bureau as their public relations coordinator where she helped get more people in Onslow County involved in the different areas of agriculture benefiting both residents and farmers. 

Ray’s work over the next 10 years included helping start an Onslow County Farm Bureau scholarship for four- and two-year programs, a Junior Livestock Show, a Farm to Fork fundraiser and a Second Grade Agriculture Day. She also taught as an adjunct instructor at James Sprunt Community College in Kenansville, North Carolina, from 2013 to 2019.

“I taught in the Agribusiness and Animal Science department. I liked what I was doing so much,” she says. “I wanted to be full time, so I knew I had to take the next step. I needed a master’s degree.”

As Ray researched different master’s degrees, she came across NC State’s Parks, Recreation, Tourism, and Sport Management online master’s degree and was instantly intrigued, seeing a perfect marriage between her agricultural background and her passion for tourism in eastern North Carolina. 

“Agriculture is changing. Rural North Carolina is changing. The family farm is different than when I grew up. Tourism and recreation will play a vital part in rural North Carolina just like agriculture. My deciding factor was not only that the program looked awesome for me, but that I grew up a Wolfpacker and most of the family did as well.”

Ray’s business provides a variety of adventure rentals including vehicles, camping equipment, bikes, kayaks and more.

Ray had a great experience in the program before she graduated in 2020. While it took her a semester to get back into a school routine, she made it work with the help of instructors and especially PRTSM Online and Distance Education Coordinator Erin Adair. Ray adds that every one of her professors was enjoyable to learn from. 

“My comfort zone was pushed and tested. As you know, that is what a full and rich life does. Without Erin Adair, the program would not be as successful, enjoyable and meaningful to me. Anytime I had any kind of program issue she was the one to call.”

The PRSTM online master’s program is designed with student success in mind, making it clear what courses students need to take and offering engaging electives. 

“I felt the program was very hands-on even though it was an all-online program. I really enjoyed meeting and working with everyone in my cohort. Learning about everyone’s jobs and dream jobs was fun. Listening to the experiences and goals of others really makes you think about what you want to do after graduating.”

Time management helped Ray meet deadlines and reduce any stress she encountered. Ray is normally the type of person to go with the flow rather than keep a strict schedule, but in order to be successful, she planned her days carefully and got ahead on assignments. She did homework at night and while her kids were at school or napping. 

“I dealt with having a full life of work, two kids, marriage and going to school. Having to drive to take a course and drive back home multiple times a week would have never worked for me. I will say, the most challenging aspect sometimes was meeting online once a week for class. I enjoyed meeting and getting to know everyone, but when you have other places you must be and you must be online interacting and being a good participant in class, it got tough a few times. Overall though, this program worked very well for me and my life.”

Ray credits her husband with helping her balance everything. 

“He would help with the kids as always but tried hard to make sure my school time was uninterrupted. He was key to my success in the program. I’m very thankful for that.”

Marsh and Mountain billboard reads "Adventure Awaits. Your adventure rental source."

Look out for Marsh and Mountain’s billboard on I-40 East heading toward Wilmington.

In fact, the PRTSM Online Master’s Program changed more than just the couple’s schedules. It became the driving force behind the creation and development of their company, Marsh and Mountain Outfitters, which supplies a wide variety of outdoor adventure rental vehicles and apparel.

“The program opened my eyes to the endless possibility that tourism and recreation can play in the future success of rural North Carolina. We have big dreams and big plans. We want people from all over the world to embrace rural North Carolina communities for their natural, cultural, culinary, agricultural, heritage and historical resources. We believe that investment from visitors is what will save and protect rural North Carolina communities from losing their identity.”

Ray encourages those who are considering continuing their education to fully assess the commitment and dive in when ready. 

“Two years is nothing in the big scheme of things, but it’s everything during that time. Just know there will be many things you can’t do during school — not as many date nights or weekend getaways, but the investment in yourself is something only you can pay for. It’s not easy, but I encourage you to do it. I highly encourage anyone motivated by parks and tourism interests to explore this program. My love for agriculture will always be present, but the crossover between this program and agriculture, hospitality, social work, economics, business and so much more is very rewarding.” 

Firepit circle with hanging benches.

Marsh and Mountain is in the process of expanding with a 60-acre RV, glamping and cottage resort.

As Ray and her family continue on their journey, they are grateful for the lessons they learned and the opportunities they discovered thanks to NC State. 

“The future of learning is more convenient and variable than ever. How we learn changes almost daily, but the character and integrity of the institution haven’t changed at all. NC State is one of the greatest places in the world to learn and make the world a better place.”