Shortly after completing college and her MBA at South Carolina State University in 2018, Atlanta native Kellie Johnson traveled across the continent for a job in Bethel, Alaska.

Johnson arrived in the rural community of 6,000 residents to work as a program coordinator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and was eager to share her passion for STEM, horticulture, and hydroponic gardening with the Bethel youth.

“When I got there, I realized that was not the agenda they needed,” she said.

Johnson learned that the city’s largely native Yup’ik population followed a traditional practice of subsistence, in which they literally live off the land, using its wild, renewable resources for food and other life essentials. Extension programming in the area focuses on building and reinforcing that connection.

From the families and children she came to serve, Johnson learned to skin wild birds, process beaver meat, make fry bread, and work collaboratively to develop Extension programs based on local needs.

It was her first lesson in culturally responsive programming.

“That’s something I carry with me now that if I go into a new environment, I need to assess, observe, and take in,” she said. “We have to be intentional about the needs of those we are serving and develop programs not based on what we think they need, but what they actually need. I learned how to do that right alongside my kids in the youth program.”  

Today, Johnson is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Education in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, evaluating minority-serving programs and their impact on student success. Her dissertation focuses on student success in the George Washington Carver Assistantship Program, which is designed to enhance graduate student diversity in the college by attracting students from historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and Tribal colleges and universities.

This year, Johnson also is completing an internship sponsored by the American Evaluation Association’s Graduate Education Diversity Internship Program. As an intern in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Equity for Excellence in STEM, she is rotating through different branches of the NSF, helping to evaluate the capacity of minority-serving institutions in STEM and how the NSF can effectively partner to support them. 

It’s not what Johnson envisioned when she first started her Ph.D. program. As a longtime 4-H participant and former Extension assistant program director, she imagined developing agriculture-related programs aimed at underserved communities like those she’d worked with in South Carolina and Alaska. Johnson’s doctoral advisor, Assistant Professor Tiffany Drape, opened her eyes to a new direction.

“When I first entered the Ph.D. program, I thought I would focus on food security and food deserts,” Johnson said. “Dr. Drape introduced me to evaluative work. It’s really stretched my thinking to how I can help create systemic change and pathways that help underserved students get into graduate programs, stay enrolled, and thrive.”

“As an emerging researcher and evaluator, Kellie’s work has application for both researchers and practitioners to inform future programming to meet the needs of underserved students in agriculture and the life sciences,” Drape said. “I’m especially proud of how she’s approached her work as an early career scholar and evaluator and applaud her for taking both fields on as areas of study.”

Johnson dedicates her free time to coaching underserved students pursuing agricultural education and careers. She’s a frequent contributor to Soul Purpose Farms, an online platform aimed at building agricultural literacy and community for young people and nontraditional groups in agriculture.

“I’m at a point where I have enough experience to provide the guidance and support to others that people gave to me,” she said. “We want to create community and collaboration for those coming up behind us. That’s the real work and that’s what’s most valuable.”

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