Benjamin Davies (ISPP 1996-2001) is currently a Graduate Research Assistant at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, USA, while working towards his Masters and PhD in Soil Science. His research focuses on two soil experiments in Ghana, one focusing on tillage and cropping systems, the other involving fertilizer amendments. Benjamin always believed he would pursue a career in international development, but he did not discover Agriculture until the end of his first year at Cornell University. “I was sitting in my room, on a snowy, cold night, feeling a bit down because everyone around me knew what they wanted to do.” Flipping through a coursebook on different majors, he came upon the description of International Agriculture and Rural Development. After his first Sustainable Agriculture class, he was hooked.
As graduation approached, Benjamin began to research on how best to get a job. “Pretty much everyone I spoke to recommended the Peace Corps as a way of getting significant work experience, especially if I wanted to work in international development… so I applied and got accepted.” Two days after Benjamin graduated with a BSc in International Agriculture and Rural Development in 2010, he reported for orientation. Two days later he was on a plane to Lesotho.
While in Lesotho, Benjamin lived in Sehlabathebe, a rural, isolated village in the southeast part of the country. He lived in a hut, with no running water and no electricity. Over the next two years, he got involved in a range of projects such as working with women support groups to set up a poultry farm, teaching life skills in secondary schools, and building playgrounds in primary schools. “I really learned a lot about development – especially how slow it can be. I came in with rose-colored glasses thinking of how I could improve things. Then I learned how nervous a community can be about risk and change. I gained a lot of patience and understanding.”
In this setting, Benjamin’s interest and appreciation of soil grew. “This quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt sums it up for me: ‘A nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself’”. Seeing the impact of soil erosion and knowing that improvements in the earth lead to improvements in agriculture, which then lead to greater food production, Benjamin became set on changing the future of the many people he lived alongside. After his first year in Lesotho, he began planning his next move, and decided he wanted to return to school to get more training and expertise in soil science.
Since he had no electricity in his hut, he either accessed the internet through his basic Nokia phone or traveled five hours by bus to a friend’s house which had an internet connection. “There I would spend the weekend searching schools. I then drafted out a letter of interest by hand and would get edits by texting it out on my phone to send to family and friends for comment. As it came time to email my final statement of interest to different professors, I had to type it out on my phone, then walk forty-five minutes to get to the community center that had solar panels to power my phone battery.” These efforts paid off for Benjamin as his application eventually landed on the desk of Dr. Bill Payne, a professor of Crop Physiology at Texas A&M University, who called Benjamin directly to discuss his interests and goals, and eventually worked to ensure his application was accepted and received funding.
While his hard work and ambition played a hand in his application’s success, Benjamin admits that his global upbringing especially made him stand out. Born in Denmark, to a Danish mother and American father, Benjamin has lived in Sudan, India, Swaziland, Cambodia, Uganda, Lesotho, and the United States. “Having lived around the world my first take away is that I am really lucky to have had the opportunity to experience so many different cultures, people, perspectives.” But saying good bye to friends is never easy and Benjamin is especially thankful for Mr. Anthony Baron, ISPP’s Secondary School Principal during Benjamin’s last year at ISPP:
I was in grade 7 so I was old enough to understand that I would be leaving my friends and the school. I was really frustrated with having to move and from time to time I would erupt, especially on the football field. Mr. Baron helped me realize that it wasn’t the end of the world and that everything would be ok.
Indeed, Benjamin learned that the world is a much smaller place for a global citizen like him, making friends easily and running into friends all over the world. As it happened, Benjamin ran into two ISPP alumni, Nichar Gregory and Victor Byenkya, while finishing secondary school at the International School of Uganda.
Benjamin and his brothers and sisters c.1999. From left: Lukas, Emma, Johannes, Daniel, and Benjamin.
“ISPP was and is an incredible place. I made lifelong friends there and got a childhood that not many get to experience. It will always be a special place for me as I am sure it is for many others. Thinking about ISPP brings back many memories.” Truth be told, many of us cannot forget one memory of Benjamin and his choice for Crazy Hair Day in 2000:
There were many floods that year in Cambodia. So I shaved my head, and left a small patch, which I dyed green. Then I super glued a Lego palm tree to my head and called it ‘Flood 2000’. At the end of the day, I couldn’t get the tree off! My friend Stacey took me to the Design and Technology room to help me remove it with a scalpel but we ended up ripping some of my skin off. Mrs. Wright [Grade 4/5 Teacher] saw the result of our work as we were walking towards the main gate and marched me to the first aid kit to put some antiseptic on it. She had to record the incident in the logbook and eventually settled on ‘Palm tree surgically removed from student’s head’.
Benjamin, ‘the kid who glued a tree to his head.’
That log entry exists to this day. When Benjamin visited ISPP in 2004 and 2006, teachers continued to have a good laugh remembering or meeting ‘the kid who glued a palm tree to his head’”.
Currently Benjamin has one year left at Texas A&M and is considering either staying for his PhD or moving, again, to a different school to broaden his network, opportunities and experiences. Over his first year in graduate school Benjamin got to visit the research farms in Ghana and attended the U.S. Borlaug Summer Institute on Global Food Security at Purdue University. Having never worked in a lab before, Benjamin has learned a lot about scientific research, however his experiences outside of the classroom interacting with different students, clubs, professors and farmers are what continue to motivate him.
As demonstrated by his life choices, starting from the palm tree incident to drafting out a university application on a phone, Benjamin’s parting advice to us is: “Do not be afraid to do something just because you have never done it before.”
A recent photo of Benjamin with his whole family in Rome!