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MANRRS Supports Agriculture's Diverse Future

CAES alumnae Alexis Barnes (left) and Tracey Troutman (right) were both MANRRS presidents during their time at the college. They passed the organization’s legacy at UGA to Thomas Gottilla (center), who leads the UGA student organization today.

In the manner of success: For two decades, CAES's MANRRS student group has supported agriculture's diverse future

Today, more than 60 percent of University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences students are female, and about 20 percent identify as underrepresented minorities.

Of the college’s living alumni, more than 1,500 reported they were a minority and 32 percent — more than 5,800 — are women, according to UGA’s Giving and Alumni Information Link System.

Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) brings awareness to the modern face of agriculture and the natural resource sciences. An organization that focuses on students from traditionally underserved and underrepresented backgrounds in agriculture and related sciences, MANRRS provides continuing education, peer and professional mentoring networks, and professional development to members in high school, college and higher education, and to those who’ve already started their careers.

This year, the UGA chapter of MANRRS celebrates its 20th year at the college, a milestone for a group that started when minority students made up only 10 percent of the UGA student body.

“Agriculture is something we should all be concerned about, regardless of who we are, especially in terms of the security of our nation,” said Don McLellan, former MANRRS faculty advisor. “We must make sure we’re all discussing food production, water quality and the environment. Those issues affect us all, and we must all be at the table.”

"This is a good thing"

Students at Michigan State and Pennsylvania State universities started MANRRS in 1984 to build a community of support among minority agriculture and natural resources students and professionals.

UGA’s first experience with the organization, however, came when student Norbert Wilson (BSA – Agricultural Economics, ’93) was asked to attend the MANRRS national conference by then-Associate Dean Wen Williams.

“I went to the conference, came back and told Dr. Williams this is a good thing,” said Wilson, who is now a professor of food policy at Tufts University. “(I saw) that there were other students of color who were studying agriculture and that companies, industries and the government were interested in hiring people from diverse backgrounds. It was deeply encouraging to see other students and faculty with similar backgrounds and experiences studying agriculture.”

The UGA chapter was established in 1997, and Professor Emeritus Robert Shewfelt, 2006 Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of Food Science and Technology, was the chapter’s first faculty advisor. There were about 10 MANRRS members then. Shewfelt helped the students with logistics and arranged for speakers for meetings.

“They had unique challenges to face, and having an organization where they could sit down and talk to each other and share experiences was the most important thing about the organization,” said Shewfelt.

Don McLellan, then-CAES director for the Office of Human Resources and Diversity Relations and Young Scholars Program director, acted as MANRRS faculty advisor from 2000 to 2007. MANRRS grew and chapter members encouraged one another to join college programs, like CAES Ambassadors, and to apply for internships, scholarships and study abroad programs, said McLellan, now the lead senior diversity and inclusion specialist for the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Then-MANRRS member Tracey Troutman (BSA – Avian Biology, ’07; MAL – Agricultural Leadership, ’08) was one of the first CAES students to take advantage of an internship in Brussels. Members were also active in regional and national MANRRS conferences.

“We provided a strong base in supporting their work so that they do and feel the same way as any other student at UGA,” McLellan said. “College life is a defining part of an individual’s development, and we didn’t want anything other than positivity.”

By the mid-2000s, chapter membership grew about fourfold. The chapter started drawing in more undergraduates than graduate and doctoral students.

“I brought in my friends, focused on (students) outside the college and opened it up to all majors,” said Troutman, who joined the chapter in 2003 and was named president in 2006.

The chapter offered students exposure to professional development, networking and job opportunities while growing ties to the university and Athens, Georgia, communities through service and engagement. Members worked concession stands, held canned food drives and volunteered to help at college events. MANRRS even hosted the inaugural Georgia Daze, an event that brought underrepresented high school students to UGA’s Athens campus to experience life as a college student, at CAES.

“We were pretty much the face of the College of Ag,” Troutman said. “Every event that happened on South Campus, we were there … We were everywhere, we did everything.”

Beyond CAES

There are currently 30 student members of MANRRS at UGA and around 2,000 nationwide. In addition to biweekly meetings, the student group continues to host professional development and networking events and members attend regional and national conferences to connect with more than 1,000 students, faculty and professionals from across the country.

“MANRRS plays a significant role in the academic and professional lives of its members by offering members opportunities to enhance leadership, organizational and public speaking skills, and to experience professional critiques in a rigorous but nurturing environment,” Associate Professor Shavannor Smith, current MANRRS faculty advisor, wrote in an email.

MANRRS alumni mentor undergraduate and graduate students who join the club. Mentors and their protégés share a major.

“Students rarely join the club with an understanding of the depth and breadth of agriculture,” said Victoria David, director of the CAES Office of Diversity Affairs. “We work to introduce students to agriculture industry leaders from all fields and help students see the full spectrum of employment and research opportunities out there.”

For many students, their time in MANRRS has defined their time at CAES, helping them to choose majors and foster connections that aid them in landing their first internships and jobs.

“The leadership positions I’ve held have been a huge part of my professional growth in ways I wouldn't have otherwise experienced, and I’ve seen it do the same for others,” said Alexis Barnes (BSA – Food Industry Marketing and Administration, ’17), former MANRRS president and current John Deere marketing representative.

“I am sitting here on Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C., because of MANRRS. I got a lot of exposure through other organizations, but when it came down to employment, MANRRS sealed the deal for me,” said Troutman, MANRRS’s national secretary, a position she was elected to by MANRRS members. Troutman was recently selected to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s efforts in the Combined Federal Campaign, which has been charged with raising $1.5 million for charities nationwide. “It’s (MANRRS) a game changer … Years later, we changed lives that may not have finished school or may not have gone to school or to the College of Ag. It made leaders of so many students like me.”

By Merritt Melancon and Kathryn Schiliro