WSU senior prepares for career in international agriculture with DC fellowship

By Sarah Appel, CAHNRS Academic Programs

Esther Rugoli did not want her summer to start off slow.

Between online classes and research with USDA wheat breeder Kimberly Garland-Campbell and molecular geneticist Camille Steber, the senior Agricultural Biotechnology major wanted to use her free time to develop professionally and further her investment in international agriculture.

Group photo with college age students dressed formally, flanked by older people wearing suits.
Esther Rugoli, yellow shirt, and the other Future Leaders Fellow of the Association for International Agriculture and Rural Development pose with their mentors and instructors.

Esther was selected as a Future Leaders Fellow of the Association for International Agriculture and Rural Development (AIARD). This position and the AIARD awarded her a scholarship to attend the AIARD Annual Meeting and Future Leaders Forum last month in Washington D.C.

Esther was one of the 12 students, and the only undergraduate student, selected from around the United States into the forum. This year’s conference theme, Resilience in Global Food Systems, accurately reflected Esther’s commitment to not only her own education but also her future career and current passions.

As a member of WSU’s chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences, Esther already understood the importance of diversity in both national and international agriculture, but wanted to learn more. This conference was one more step in that journey. The first two days of the trip were the National Conference itself and the latter two days consisted of tours for the AIARD Future Leaders. Both showcased the importance of international agriculture and the food supply.

“The food is going down, and the population is increasing. We have to talk about how to recover from the shock,” Esther said, describing the conference theme.

To solidify this theme, the Future Leaders Forum members visited a variety of companies in Washington D.C. that work in national and international food security.

Future goals from past experiences

From a young age, food security has been important to Esther. A native of Rwanda, she grew up on her family farm and her village faced food insecurity. The hunger problems she saw that plagued her friends and family inspired her to commit herself to solve the problem through plant breeding and genetics.

Selfie photo of Cory Booker smiling at the camera surrounded by college age students at night on a street. There's a sign for CNN in the background.
Esther Rugoli, in yellow, met Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in Washington DC with her fellow Association for International Agriculture and Rural Development Future Leaders.

She came to WSU in 2016 with a set path in mind: Bachelor’s Degree, then Masters, then off to the workforce. This conference shook up those plans and opened her eyes to the vast horizon of possibilities.

“For me to get where I want to be, it’s not a straight line. That was a big takeaway from the forum: reaching where you want to reach doesn’t always mean it’s going to be straight, and sometimes doesn’t always go how you plan it,” Esther said. “But you have to fake it till you make it to reach where you want to reach.”

She was referencing a speaker at the forum that explained the importance of flexibility.

“As long as I want something, I will do anything to achieve that thing. And that requires endurance and persistence,” she said.

Helping where it’s needed

And where Esther wants to be is an African country, preferably Rwanda, working to improve plant genetics and breeding. She hopes to take crops that are already grown in Rwanda and modify them to contain more minerals and micronutrients. To achieve this, Esther is now considering the idea of pursuing a Master’s Degree in plant genetics or breeding and a Ph.D. in a policy-related field.

Esther is grateful for the opportunity to participate within an organization that emphasizes international agriculture and teaches resiliency even when the path isn’t straight. Esther advises any student who has an interest in international agriculture to apply for next year’s conference.

“It was really life-changing. I came back more energized, more focused, and more ambitious,” Esther said. She feels ready, more now than ever, to work for what she wants.

As an added bonus, the Future Leaders ran into Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) while exploring the streets of Washington D.C. He was surprised and pleased with what this group of young adults were doing while visiting the city. He asked the group to take a selfie with him, which they excitedly agreed to. His support only solidified Esther’s commitment to her newfound ambition.