Dana Mulligan, Honors College Austin Michelle Cloyd Odyssey Fellow from Falls Church, Virginia, has been named the 2020 Outstanding Honors College Senior. During her four years at Virginia Tech, Mulligan worked hard to embody the spirit of the Honors College by being a strong advocate for social responsibility. She majored in Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences and holds minors in International Studies, French, and Global Food Security. 

“Taking a gap year in-between high school and college really set Dana up to come to Virginia Tech with a better understanding of why she chose to further her education,” said Christina McIntyre, Virginia Tech Honors College Director of Professional Development, National and International Scholarships. “Although she started as truly undecided (University Studies), she had the maturity and social capital to explore various options. Eventually, Dana found a home in Crop Soil and Environmental Science. She found a great mentor in Dr. Thomas Thompson and she took initiatives to authentically navigate the university on her terms.”

As a high-schooler, Mulligan was one of 21 students selected nationwide for a one-month home stay in Uganda, with a focus on sustainable culture. With no agricultural background whatsoever, Mulligan said her summer in Uganda changed everything for her. “I learned about food security that summer, and realized that was what was at the intersection of all my interests: It has to do with the environment, food security, and human rights,” explained Mulligan. 

She was also inspired by the interconnectedness of the farmers in the capital city of Uganda, especially her own host mother. “She was very active in the community and had her own mushroom farm,” said Mulligan. “I remember visiting another farmer in a very tiny area that had all these crops growing… Seeing how resourceful people were and seeing how engaged people were in the community, especially with my host mother helping a lot of other local farmers, I thought, ‘I want to do that!’” 

Dana Mulligan
Dana Mulligan analyzing the soil health at Nyumbani Children’s Home and Village's farm.

During her first-year at Virginia Tech, Mulligan was selected by the U.S. State Department (Kennedy-Lugar YES Abroad Program) to spend several months studying in Senegal. She continued to complete internships with Virginia Cooperative Extension and North Carolina State University as well as a study-abroad course to Peru. 

“Dana is an accomplished individual with an active and curious mind – and a deep desire to better the human condition through international development,” said Associate Dean and Director Thomas Thompson of the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. “I have never met an undergraduate with such breadth of experience and such well-informed plans for her future. She is a remarkable young woman whose strong principles motivate her to improve the life for others through community service and her desired career path in international development.”

Mulligan ultimately chose her field of studies to prepare herself for a career in international and domestic agricultural development – with the goal of ending hunger and ensuring human rights through agriculture. To work toward this ambitious goal, Mulligan, due to her Cloyd Fellowship, was able to partner with a non-profit in Nyumbani Village, Kenya. 

Nyumbani Children’s Home and Village in Kitui Country provides sanctuary for children who have lost their parents to HIV and AIDS. The village has over a thousand of residents. Agriculture at Nyumbani is a mix of irrigated and non-irrigated crop production, greenhouse production, and dairy cattle, small ruminants, and poultry. With the village almost completely dependent on its own productivity for food supply, the stakes could not be higher. Nevertheless, Mulligan, being the only intern at Nyumbani and living in an isolated region of rural Kenya, worked six weeks during the summer of 2019 at the village. She created soil health cards, provided recommendations for their farm to increase food production, and ensured food security for the children in their care. 

“The goal was to be able to grow enough food to both provide for the village and make some money for the village,” said Mulligan. “It was my first time working with another culture and doing a project by myself – without anyone ‘holding my hand’ during it. It was a really interesting experience, but definitely challenging.”

Being a total outsider was certainly difficult at times when it came to communication, but the biggest challenge for Mulligan was learning to adapt on the fly and working with limited resources. She was able to evaluate the soil to determine what crops would thrive the best and then compose a rudimentary soil map of their farm to help farmers monitor their soil health over time with guidelines on how to mend soil health. 

“What I have come to admire the most about Dana is her willingness to put herself in uncomfortable situations that offer her the ability to grow, learn, and develop skills and use her empathy to help others,” said Ben Grove, Associate Director for Global Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Dana never shield away from a new opportunity and she had both the capacity and drive to learn what it took to succeed in a given role or task. She always found ways to use her experiences for the benefit of others.”

“I also did some documenting on their agricultural practices to find out what to improve on,” said Mulligan. “A lot of things cost a lot of money to improve… For example, they live in a very arid area and would need more water [to promote the soil health]. But they can’t really get [access] to more water, so what can they do to maintain water retention [in the soil]? To maintain more water for the crops, they could grow more trees, for example, and then focus on the crops that would be the best to grow.”

Dana Mulligan at Nyumbani Children’s Home and Village
Dana Mulligan at Nyumbani Children’s Home and Village, Kenya.

During the academic year prior to that summer, Mulligan conducted undergraduate research on agricultural development initiatives in Kenya to be more prepared for her fellowship project, which she had support through the Sustainability Scholars program at Tech. Her experiential learning continued at the conferences she had the opportunity to attend, including the Women and Gender in Development Conference at Virginia Tech, the Chicago Council Global Food Security Symposium, and the World Food Prize.

Mulligan further practiced the Virginia Tech Honors College value of social responsibility at home as well as abroad. At Virginia Tech, she led an Honors reading seminar about the similarities and differences between Western and African culture and societal structure, which helped participants better understand and critically analyze their own culture as Americans.

Mulligan was also engaged with the broader Virginia Tech and southwest Virginia community in her engagement in the Environmental Coalition, where she helped organize the student movement against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. She also co-founded and served as President for the Conscious Collective, a meditation and mindfulness club with the intent of building an atmosphere where students could feel safe to de-stress, share their emotions, and be open with each other. "Being a part of the Honors College has been transformative for my Virginia Tech experience," said Mulligan. "Without the guidance of the Honors College values, I don't believe I would've had the breadth and depth of experiences I have had during my four years at Virginia Tech." 

“Dana truly exemplifies the spirit and purpose of an Honors education at Virginia Tech,” said Dean Paul Knox. “She has taken full advantage of the opportunities, met the challenges with flying colors, and exceeded our expectations. We are very proud of her.”

After graduation, Mulligan continued her agricultural research by investigating corn and small grains at Virginia Tech Argonomy Farm. In the future, Mulligan also hopes to earn her master’s degree, continue to travel around the world, and keep learning about human rights issues. “I have so much to learn and to do, but I know here my interests lie,” said Mulligan. “As long as I keep learning – and keep trying to make a difference in the world in the best way that I can – my goals will be realized.” 

Written by Michelle Fleury