Diversifying the Agricultural Space: OSU Minority Society 

The minority student population at Oregon State University is quickly growing, yet the population has lesser success in terms of graduation rates, according to Wanda Crannell.   

Crannell’s roles include: BioResource Research Interdisciplinary Sciences Program Coordinator, Advisor, and Instructor, College of Agricultural Sciences’ Pre-medical Advisor, OSU Pre-Medical Committee Member, and OSU MANNRS Chapter Advisor for 23 years  

Minorities in Agriculture  

MANRRS stands for Minorities in Agricultural and Natural Resource-Related Sciences, and is one of the largest and most diverse national non-profit societies. Its 60-plus university chapters in six regions across the country are dedicated to preparing its student membership for careers in agricultural and related sciences. The OSU MANRRS Chapter has proven itself a vital piece to bridging the gap in enrollment and graduation rates, and perhaps even more importantly, for preparing students for their post-campus careers.  

Cranell says that the OSU MANRRS Chapter leadership team provides culturally relevant leadership development that improves student engagement, retention, and graduation success. A 2018-2019 membership review found that OSU MANRRS Chapter members experience graduation rates 30 percent higher than other OSU underrepresented minority students. OSU MANRRS has also gained recognition outside of its own membership, consistently ranking as a top chapter with two National Chapter of the Year Awards and 12 consecutive outstanding regional awards.  

The success of MANRRS, explains Johannah Hamilton, a PhD candidate at OSU and MANRRS Co-advisor, is that it stays true to its mission in being “dedicated to promoting minorities in agriculture. Basically, to diversify the agricultural space, to diversify the face of agriculture.”   

To learn more about the organization and the student leadership behind it, Cranell quickly introduced me to both Hamilton and Ruben Lopez, who his entering his senior year of his undergraduate studies in Animal Science and BioResource Research, on a pre-veterinary tract. In the fall, Lopez will be the President of the MANRRS OSU Chapter, as well as the Vice President of the West Coast-wide national MANRRS Region 6.   

Cultivating Leadership  

Lopez hails from Hermiston, Ore. in Umatilla County, where agriculture is a huge component of the economic and social fabric.  

“My dad has been working, basically since I was four, at a feed lot,” Lopez explained. “He always brought me out there and when I became old enough to work, he started taking me out to work with him during winter break for that whole three weeks, and I really liked it. Since high school, I got more interested, I started working with some veterinarians that work with my dad.”  

“When I got to work with him I felt happy and blessed,” he continued. “I felt like it was a passion I had that led me to focus on studying to be a veterinarian.”   

While finishing a secondary degree is an achievement in itself, the process of seeking a veterinary degree is comparable to that of medical school in terms of competitiveness for admittance into veterinary schools after completing undergraduate coursework. According to Veterinarian.edu, the acceptance rate into veterinary schools is typically between 10 and 15 percent. In addition to needing high test scores and GPA’s to be admitted, it is critical that applicants round out their resumes with relevant experiences.   

Lopez was first introduced to MANRRS early on in his college years. Even before he began coursework at OSU, he took steps that would eventually encourage his involvement in the organization. Along with his application to OSU, Lopez completed an eligibility checklist to qualify for the College Assistance Migrant Program, or CAMP.   

CAMP is a federally funded program designed to support students from migrant and seasonal farm worker backgrounds during their first year in college. During this program, Lopez was introduced to all the different clubs available, including MANRRS.   

Both regional and national MANNRS conferences involve a plethora of competitions aimed at developing hard and soft skills necessary as professionals in this field. Interview competitions with real agricultural companies, impromptu speech contests, elevator pitch contests, and career fairs, as well as less formal networking, all present big opportunities for members to make connections and grow as individuals.   

From that first head-on introduction to MANRRS, Lopez began “dedicating a lot of time to MANRRS, especially because I had a great connection with the President that year.”  

While Hamilton has been involved in MANRRS for much longer than Lopez, her path to studying agriculture, and to the state of Oregon for that matter, has been a bit less straight-forward in some respects.  

Hamilton grew up in Louisville, Ky, and went to undergrad at the University of Kentucky. She began as an accounting major, looking forward to the comfortable life she thought that career would provide her. But into her coursework, she realized it wasn’t for her, and eventually came to make the switch to an Agricultural Economics major.   

“‘What are you going to do, be a farmer?’” Hamilton described as her mom’s uncertain reaction. “Fast forward seven years later, I’m 28 now, and it is one of my goals to have my own farm and live off the land.”   

Opportunities Abound  

A huge factor in her choosing an agricultural-related degree was that a friend introduced her to MANRRS. At UK, this was a really big deal their chapter had won a lot of competitions and was sort of a social hub. Similar to Lopez, Hamilton was met with friendly leadership that encouraged her to get involved at a higher level early on by attending a regional conference.   

Before she joined MANRRS, Hamilton’s resume included jobs at Subway and McDonald’s, but after her first year of involvement, she quickly added studies abroad in the Dominican Republic and Panama, an internship with 4H Cooperative Extension in Jefferson County, Ky, and making it onto the Dean’s List.   

“I was afforded a lot of opportunities that I wasn’t aware of,” she says of that first year, “I wasn’t cognizant that they were possibilities for me because I hadn’t had the exposure.”   

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Hamilton went on to get a masters at Auburn University in Alabama in the field of Agricultural Economics, and continued to stay involved with MANRRS through the local chapter there. During her studies, her interest in policy grew, but nearing the end of her last year, she wasn’t sure exactly where she would go next. She contemplated law school and the Peace Corps, and then, at a MANNRS conference in Philadelphia, Hamilton met OSU Chapter advisor Wanda Crannell.   

“I never ever in a million years thought I’d be living in Oregon, you know. I’d never even been here before,” Hamilton says.But after I met Wanda at our MANNRS conference, she recruited me and literally had me set up with my current advisor and director of our program two days later after meeting her, so I knew she wasn’t playing around.”   

Now, Hamilton is firmly planted at OSU and within the greater Corvallis Community as she seeks her PhD in Public Policy with a dissertation focused on cultural competency, and at the same time is co-running a skincare business, Melanin Minerals.   

“MANRRS was like a saving grace for me,” she said. “Running into Wanda and hearing about Oregon State MANRRS Chapter and the opportunity to be a Co-advisor. I had already been so involved in it, so why not continue to be involved through my education?”  

OSU Chapter Activities  

Beyond preparing members for the competitions that they take part in at regional and national conferences, the OSU MANRRS Chapter leadership organizes professional development workshops, and fundraises and volunteers for both local and international charities.   

A typical workshop often utilizes the expertise of outside speakers, such as bringing in staff from OSU’s Counseling and Psychological Services to introduce members to a range of de-stressing tactics. Meanwhile, fundraisers may involve partnering with Chipotle or Petco to support local non-profits such as the Heartland Humane Society or Jackson Street Youth Shelter, and volunteer work often involves working with environmental groups like the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition to clean up local streams and watersheds.   

MANRRS has played a large role in funding and coordinating service-oriented trips for both members and other OSU students. Hamilton described an alternative spring break trip that took place a year ago, where students went to Puerto Rico to aid in rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Maria. Students on the trip helped reconstruct a school building, planted raised vegetable beds, conducted water quality testing, taught coursework comparing agriculture in Oregon and Puerto Rico, and partnered with another group in South Florida to bring in bee boxes to aid in restoring the pollinator population there.   

OSU MANRRS Chapter members also play a mentorship role for Junior MANRRS members at Rosemary-Anderson High School in Portland. For Hamilton, providing students at this level with exposure to all the components that make up agriculture is a really important aspect of the work they do.   

When Hamilton was in high school, she did not “see that many black and brown faces who are in that same industry and in that same space.”   

Changing how high school minority students visualize a person in this field and the variety of skilled jobs within the field can help them realize their potential, and perhaps aid in convincing loving but skeptical parents that it is a worthy career choice.    

MANRRS in a Pandemic  

Pre-COVID, in-person chapter activities were the norm – the impact of the pandemic is being felt, and perhaps won’t become fully realized until fall term begins. Yet, OSU MANRRS Chapter leadership is confident they will be able to continue offering value for their members and greater communities in the safe formats at their disposal.   

“I think it will definitely be a big challenge,” said Lopez, but nevertheless, “I’m ready.  

“Of course, it’s hard to get that same engagement and level of enthusiasm virtually as you would in person,” said Hamilton. “But I don’t think the impact that MANRRS has chapter to chapter and all the way up to the national level will be weakened.”   

In some ways, the kind of professional development that MANRRS cultivates has lent its leaders the flexibility required to continue on in these challenging times. At the same time, the pandemic has made many people with little agricultural knowledge seriously consider how their food is grown and transported to their homes. Perhaps now, communities will also come to affirm the value of diversifying the leaders who will see this unfold as part of their profession.  

By Ari Blatt