Class of 2019: Agricultural and applied economics major finds calling in underrepresented communities
First-generation student of Caribbean descent finds her place helping communities better themselves
Marquelle Benn came to Tech at age 17 thinking she wanted to become a veterinarian.
And while the senior who is graduating this month with a degree in agricultural and applied economics still loves animals, she has now uncovered her true passion – helping people and communities better themselves. It’s what links her joy for and appreciation of veterinary care, the legal system, and local government — and it’s now how she wants to spend her career.
“Looking back on all the things I did in high school and college, I realized that they all had an element of helping the community, and I realized that that’s what I enjoyed the most,” said Benn.
Describing herself as a “busy-body,” Benn spent her free time in high school job shadowing at a veterinary clinic, a trend she continued after the first-generation college student started her academic career in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“I job shadowed at the Richmond Emergency Animal Hospital during my sophomore year at Tech, and the people were really welcoming but I realized that it wasn’t for me,” Benn said. “I thought I was just tired of the routine from job shadowing other veterinary clinics, but I realized that I might have to put down an animal, and I didn’t know if I could do that.”
That revelation hit Benn hard during her sophomore year as she questioned her future career and began to consider alternate paths.
“My parents gave me free will to do what I wanted as long as it was beneficial for me,” said Benn. “At the time I wished I had a bit more guidance in terms of my college journey, but now I’m thankful that I had to figure it out on my own because I grew as a person. Now, if I hit a bumpy road, I know how to maneuver; I’m not a fish out of water.”
Familiar with the agricultural and applied economics department as a student in the “ag college,” Benn discovered that switching into that department would allow her to explore her interests in economics and community development while permitting her to use many of the credits she had already earned.
In addition to exploring these topics further, Benn received academic as well as financial support as a student in the department. She received the Lura Eaton and Franklin A. Whiter Scholarship for undergraduate students studying agricultural and applied economics, which was applied to her tuition payment to help cover the cost of her education.
Though Benn switched majors and didn’t find her career calling until her junior year, her involvement in Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences — referred to as MANRRS — provided a support network and development opportunities before, during, and after her academic transition.
“A lot of times when I sit in class, I’m the only person that looks like me,” said Benn, whose mother is Jamaican and whose father is from St. Vincent. “So, to find people who are in the same college as me and share the same experience was really nice.”
MANRRS offered a space for Benn to express herself and to learn a different side of agriculture.
“People normally talk about rural Virginia and the white community, but there are other rural areas,” Benn said. “There’s African American communities, California has a huge Hispanic community, and further south there’s more African American communities, too. No one really talks about the expanse of underrepresented ag communities, but MANRRS helped me see the whole aspect of agriculture. There’s not just one face of ag.”
Through MANRRS, Benn competed in several regional and national competitions, and she served as the group’s public relations chair for a year before becoming the group’s president.
As president, Benn has engaged other campus organizations in collaborative events that seek to build understanding and mutual growth.
After graduation, Benn plans to work for an organization that provides opportunities for underrepresented people. Her long-term goal is to build a career that continues to expand those opportunities for underrepresented people and revitalizes communities that may otherwise be forgotten.
“I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I didn’t come to Tech,” said Benn. “I’ve become more tolerant of people’s opinions and I’ve learned to see different perspectives, too. I’ve grown as an individual here. I’ve seen what life is like in a rural community because this is my first time in a rural community. And I’ve seen that no matter where I am, I can flourish.”
-Written by Jillian Broadwell