Minorities at Woodson and Locust Trace find ag niche
Students from Carter G. Woodson Academy and Locust Trace AgriScience Center interact with professionals and build their personal skills through a partnership with the University of Kentucky and its MANRRS chapter. MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences) provides access and opportunities for groups typically underrepresented in these career fields. For example, a handful of black males from Woodson is working alongside UK professors on independent research projects, and about four dozen diverse students at Locust Trace are starting a Junior MANRRS chapter for leadership development.
Every other school day, the Woodson students meet up with their mentors in labs near UK’s football stadium to work on projects for the District Science Fair. Their research ranges from studying the efficiency of fungicides in controlling bitter rot in apples to manipulating genes in seeds to affect the number of embryos produced for plant regeneration. The handpicked group includes seniors Dorian Cleveland, Kristian Bolden Sippio, and Jonathan Lott, and juniors Rhyan Moseley and Christian Keller. “They have an interest in science, in resume-building, in networking,” said Woodson teacher and adviser Sara Adams. “They definitely have a voice that needs to be heard. I hope they are able to capitalize and turn this into an internship or career.”
Rhyan, who is paired with Professor Lisa Vaillancourt in Plant Pathology, actually leans toward music engineering, and his research is generally computer-based. “I’m doing this to be more well-rounded, and it’s actually pretty fun,” he said. “I’ll definitely be ahead in science classes, and I will have a feel for what college kids do.”
Vaillancourt, who judges projects in the regional science fair, launched the mentoring component three years ago. “Science fairs generally don’t have a good representation of minority students, particularly at the high school level,” she noted. After Woodson students impressed her in a TV news clip, Vaillancourt reached out to the school. The partnership has since grown with additional UK mentors and funding from the National Science Foundation. Student participation has also increased. “There are a lot of different STEM options, from economics to microbiology to pharmacy to engineering,” Vaillancourt said. “We need diversity in agriculture like so many STEM fields. There are so many opportunities if we could show people what we can offer and what these careers include – from energy to food to drugs to everything in between really, anything that’s plant- or animal-based.”
Staff in UK’s Diversity Office saw the Woodson connection as a good chance to introduce high school students to MANRRS as well. The program includes professional development such as resume building and public speaking, and mentors walk the students through the college-application process. “We’re learning how to network and present ourselves in a good way in interviews,” Rhyan added.
Out on the farm
Mia Farrell, interim director for diversity in UK’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment and chair of National Junior MANRRS, found Locust Trace was an ideal pipeline for interested students. Last year, UK piloted a weekly class at the Leestown Road farm featuring the “Next Generation of Diverse Leaders” curriculum. The ongoing outreach has also included community service and campus visits, along with UK students serving as role models. “It’s imperative that we get into the classroom as early as possible, talking about our careers. Being authentic and telling students your stories brings it to life,” Farrell said. “Having people come into their classroom really shows students the future of agriculture is growing and there are thousands of jobs with a direct impact. When they understand they can do it, too, it’s eye-opening.”
Following UK’s initiative, Locust Trace students formed a MANRRS club at school. With interest burgeoning, the technical center this fall decided to start a Junior MANRRS chapter, which students hope will be official by winter break. Community liaison Eli Parham, the group’s adviser, noted how MANRRS ensures that diverse students are welcome to participate. “They see MANRRS as an opportunity to fit in,” he said. “There’s a business side, agricultural side, and a production side to it. We have a lot more students willing to become involved.”
The group has visited minority-owned farms and the Kentucky Horse Park to explore various jobs in the equine industry. Students have also collaborated with Lexington Parks & Recreation and Kentucky Farm Bureau on service projects, and mentored elementary kids. Once chartered, the chapter members will have more access to events on the UK campus as well as MANRRS regional and national conferences. Students can then participate in competitions, apply for scholarships, sign up for professional development, and more. “This group tells you stuff you wouldn’t normally learn in the classroom,” said Catalina Soriano, a junior from Lafayette High School on the veterinary assistant track at Locust Trace. Antyana Cowan, a sophomore from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, added that MANRRS helps build self-confidence in face-to-face encounters. “It’s an opportunity for practice so when we get to college, hey, we’re on top of it,” she said.
Parham noted that Locust Trace is beginning to reflect the diversity of the community. “The idea is to embrace those differences within the population and really show students that agriculture is for everybody,” he said. “It’s important to establish this program to represent this population we’re serving. Diversity is important here, and there is a place here for everybody. Through MANRRS, we can really push these students to achieve great things.”