February 16, 2021 | By: Aimee Nielson
LEXINGTON, Ky.

Sarah Marshall knew from a young age that her path would lead to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, but she didn’t realize that would be the springboard for a life of global agriculture service and adventure.

Growing up on a farm in Eastern Kentucky’s Fleming County, Marshall was involved in 4-H and later in FFA. She first visited the UK campus as part of 4-H Teen conference and then later at a Kentucky Farm Bureau Institute for Future Agricultural Leaders.

“I always knew I wanted to either to educate farmers or educate the public about farming,” she said. “Agricultural communications seemed like a natural fit.  At the time, it was my goal to work in Cooperative Extension.”

Once at UK, Marshall studied agricultural communications and community and leadership development.

“I loved being a UK student,” Marshall reminisced. “The College of Agriculture, Food and Environment was like a second family to me. I was involved in many student activities, on the student council, and I served as an Ag Ambassador, where I made many lifelong friends and memories and began to understand who I was and who I wanted to be.”

After graduating from UK, Marshall earned a master’s degree in agricultural education at Oklahoma State University and began to realize her desire to take her skills worldwide.

“I didn’t grow up traveling internationally, but the minute I did while in graduate school, I felt a pull,” she said. “I was prepared for it. My classes and extracurricular activities in college had equipped me with the skills I needed to work with diverse populations to build community capacity, and you can take those skills anywhere.”

After graduate school, Marshall joined the U.S. Peace Corps and dedicated the next 3.5 years to volunteering in Jamaica. Most of her days were spent in rural villages, facilitating farmer field schools on topics like agroforestry and hillside conservation. She also learned how to speak the local language, Jamaican Patwa and used her communication and community building skills to bond with farmers and community leaders in a true cultural exchange. While in Jamaica, Marshall gained an understanding of United States development and diplomacy efforts overseas and solidified her desire to work in that space.

Currently, Marshall works in Zimbabwe as a deputy director for the Office of Humanitarian Assistance and Resilience in the U.S. Agency for International Development. She is responsible for managing the United States’ humanitarian efforts and disaster response in Zimbabwe, including emergency food assistance.

“Our program also supports longer term resilience building efforts for smallholder farmers,” she said. “We assist communities in establishing communal resources like small dams, gardens and livestock dip tanks, help them access markets and financing, and promote better nutrition using local foods. Our primary goal is to increase food security and promote resilience and self-reliance.”

Since moving to Zimbabwe in 2018, Marshall has experienced two consecutive droughts and an ongoing economic crisis making her job interesting and challenging.

“I love working in a constantly changing environment where my team can brainstorm and quickly implement solutions,” she said. “I appreciate that Zimbabweans have welcomed me into their country and community; I’ve made lifelong friends.”

 She has also had the opportunity to see the local wildlife and learn of the conservation efforts to prevent wildlife trafficking. Marshall will depart Zimbabwe in 2022.

Looking back at how UK prepared her for her career, Marshall said she received scholarships each of the four years she was at UK and that enabled her to graduate without being in debt. She also built a network through her activities and relationships with alumni from across Kentucky that helped her plan what to do after graduation. She said she still feels support from the UK faculty and staff and has just committed to funding a scholarship for the next five years.

Even though it hasn’t been too long since she was at UK, Marshall said she senses a change in the current students. She sees them being more aware of the world around them than she remembers about her college years.

“Today’s students have had social media and advanced technology their entire lives,” she said. “When I talk to young people today, I am impressed by their ability to think critically and to consider other viewpoints. I came from rural Kentucky, and when I got to UK, the internet was just becoming part of our daily lives. The college experience opened my eyes. Today’s students have their eyes open long before they step on campus.”

As for what she believes students today can learn from her journey, Marshall said she hopes they will take advantage of all the available opportunities to expand their knowledge.

“I recommend to all students to travel during college,” she said. “Learn a foreign language. I regret not doing that sooner. Never be afraid to ask questions and reach out to people who can provide advice and guidance. Jump at any opportunity to learn a new skill and recognize that people of the world are more alike than they are different.”

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