By Mary Shelley-Snell
Ashlyn Anderson, a ’22 University of Tennessee, Knoxville graduate with a degree in food security, public health, and nutrition and a minor in Hispanic studies and international agriculture, has always been interested in becoming more globally engaged. Through the Smith Center for International Sustainable Agriculture, Anderson has been able to expand her worldview, while also preparing for a future focused on international work. Anderson first began to engage with international agri-food systems when she traveled to Guatemala in 2019 on a spring break trip as part of Agriculture and Natural Resource Challenges in Guatemala, a course offered by the Smith Center. In this Herbert College of Agriculture course, undergraduates learn about agriculture and the existing environmental challenges in Guatemala. Through working with rural communities, students engage with diverse agriculture across a variety of environments, while also learning about the social and economic issues made worse by climate change.
“It was a fantastic, growth-oriented trip, and I knew at the conclusion that it wasn’t the only time I wanted to go to Guatemala. I was convinced that a week was not long enough, so I started searching for an opportunity to go back,” Anderson said about her own experience on the trip. That trip led to her interest in the Milam Scholars Program. “Sara Mulville was hugely influential on that trajectory and told me about the Milam Program.”
Anderson returned to Guatemala as a Milam Scholar for two months the following summer. She felt passionate about the community garden she originally worked on at Chicacao and spent the summer working to expand the garden as well as facilitating health and nutrition focused community discussions. Centering the community’s existing knowledge guided her work. “A big undercurrent of my experience was that the community is already the expert and has all the knowledge about what they need. My purpose was to lend a helping hand and foster the ongoing community work with the garden,” she explained.
Anderson concluded her undergraduate experience with a January 2022 study abroad trip to Mexico led by Carlos Trejo-Pech, an associate professor of agribusiness finance in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. This trip focused on the business of coffee production in Mexico and involved learning about every aspect of the production process. This included engaging with multiple coffee producers, ranging from small scale all the way up to larger cooperatives of organic farmers. Students also visited Colegio de Posgraduados de Ciencias Agrícolas (ColPos), where they met professors and engaged with the science of coffee production.
“The ag trips that I’ve been on through the Smith Center have been incredible, enriching and they increase students’ awareness of how their interests and degree fits into this story. None of us majored in anything related to coffee production, but we all ended up really interested in how we fit into this story about coffee in Mexico. That brought to light that we all have something to offer, we all bring something to the table,” Anderson said about the impact of this trip.
Anderson believes that both the Milam Scholars program and the Smith Center shaped her undergraduate experience and helped shape her academic path. Following her first trip abroad, Anderson felt led to become more active on her own campus by engaging with student hunger issues and working to help food insecure students through the Big Orange Pantry. She also served as a Smith Center Student Ambassador in which she was able to help connect other students to the work the Smith Center does as well as their own agri-food system.
“I just think the Smith Center and the Milam Scholars program gives people opportunities to really follow their passions and see how their passions fit into this global story. Because I believe in the way that all these topics are interconnected, but I took a class my freshman year (AGNR 180) that affirmed my passion and helped me create this interdisciplinary trajectory as an undergraduate,” Anderson said. “I think that’s what the Smith Center does for people, it brings people together and connects the dots.”
The international experiences that Anderson was able to experience because of the Smith Center have led to her next chapter. She was chosen for a 2022–23 Fulbright student award through the Fulbright US Student Program. She will be teaching English in Mexico through the US–Mexico Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange and immersing herself in the community with a personal project that she hopes will build on her experience with community gardens.
“That experience in Guatemala informed my desire in the first place to go to Mexico and to a Spanish-speaking country for the Fulbright. It also built my confidence in my own skills to know that I can be placed in a community and can foster mutual understanding there. And to be able to offer parts of myself, but also be willing to learn from my students and my community partners,” Anderson said. For Anderson, this is a story about how food brings everyone to the table. She looks forward to seeing how the Milam Scholars Program and the Smith Center continue to impact not only students, but the UT system overall.
Please join the Smith Center at the 2022 UTIA International Showcase on Friday, September 23 from 1:30-3:30 pm in Brehm Animal Science Arena to learn more about study abroad opportunities as well as global engagement across UTIA. More information about the International Showcase can be found here.