From Brooklyn to Uganda: how a chance email changed my view of agriculture, and my life

April 10, 2019

By Dana Mulligan, student in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech and intern in the Global Programs office of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

When I tell people I’m majoring in Crop and Soil Sciences, their first question is almost always, “why?” I come from a long line of Brooklynites and was born and raised amidst the bustling crowds and traffic jams of the D.C. metropolitan area. Nothing about my heritage shouts agriculture, and I certainly never imagined I would find my calling in agriculture until a chance email led me to a life-changing experience.

During my sophomore year of high school, I received an email from my Girl Scout troop leader with a link to an application for a month abroad in Uganda. I would live with a host family, learn leadership skills, and study sustainable agriculture and food security with all expenses paid courtesy of the U.S. State Department. It was a dream come true: international travel and a great resume booster, free of cost.

I had no particular interest in Uganda or food security, but it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. I worked on it without saying a word to my parents, as I knew they wouldn’t be thrilled about the idea of me spending a summer in a far-away developing country. Within a month, I received the phone call informing me that I was accepted. When they saw how much it meant to me, my parents gave me permission to go.

Uganda was an incredible experience, and I still find it difficult to express how important it was to me. Not only did it facilitate an immense amount of personal growth and give me a new perspective on the world, but it also set me on my current path.

 

My host mother filled every inch of the yard with native plants and each day she would spend hours cooking each meal using ingredients we had bought at the local street market. In the evening we would sit at the table while she explained the programs she ran to support local farmers and alleviate food insecurity.

As a vegetarian of nearly a decade, I was horrified when I was asked to help kill the chicken my host family was going eat for dinner. At the same time, I amazed to see meat not purchased saran-wrapped in a grocery store but raised in a backyard and killed by hand. For my host family, most of their food does not come with fancy packaging displayed on neat shelves or in refrigerated boxes. Their food is every bit as real and alive as me.
I had other remarkable experiences as well.

I visited a vertical garden the size of my closet in which a woman raised everything from mushrooms to chickens. At Uganda’s top university I stuck my hand in through a porthole on the side of a cow. We discussed how food insecurity plagued Washington D.C. and Kampala despite the vast differences between the two cities.

The culture of food production and consumption I experienced in Uganda was so radically different from anything I had experienced, and it absolutely enthralled me. I realized that agriculture is not a distant industry of corn fields and tractors, but a force that is capable of transforming people’s lives for the better.

I entered Uganda expecting a fun summer adventure and a good source of material for college essays, but I left with newfound passion and purpose. To this day I consider receiving that email a pivotal moment in my life.

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