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Forward Thinking – College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Graduating agroecology and plant biology major Mika’el Chabeda has packed plenty of experiences into his four years at NC State University.

When he scrolls through his photos, it’s all there. Research with cotton and sweet potatoes. Studying abroad in Denmark. Fieldwork for an internship and volunteer work at the Agroecology Education Farm. And soccer, lots of soccer, with friends in North Carolina and Europe.

If that seems like a lot for an undergraduate, consider that Chabeda forged a connection with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences during his junior year of high school in Davidson, North Carolina. While studying online with the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, he wrote a paper about decreasing soil degradation in Kenya for an Agricultural Biotechnology Solutions class.

“I took this class because it seemed interesting to me and I enjoyed environmental science, but I was looking for solutions, ways that I could make a difference,” Chabeda says. “I had no background whatsoever in agriculture. The closest thing I had was my parents. They’re both African. My mom is Nigerian, my dad is Kenyan, and they had grown up around subsistence farming. They didn’t farm themselves. But other than that, I had no actual personal ties to it.”

The paper connected Chabeda to NC State through the North Carolina Youth Institute, where he met seed physiologist Lori Unruh Snyder and began his first agricultural research, helping examine damaged cotton seed in her lab. His winning paper also took him to Des Moines, Iowa, to meet Nobel and World Food Prize laureates as part of the Global Youth Institute.

Adjusting His Course

Chabeda chose NC State for college, starting as an agricultural science major. He was selected for the Goodnight Scholars Program, which supports STEM majors with funding for up to four years, along with opportunities for personal and professional development.

“NC State has a lot to offer,” Chabeda says. “You’ve just got to be willing to say yes to the opportunities that present themselves, and you’ll end up, maybe not where you expect to be, but maybe where you need to be.”

Case in point: Chabeda switched majors his sophomore year after discovering agroecology.

“What I really enjoyed most was the production side, and working with people and seeing the tangible results of growing food from a community standpoint,” he says. “That led me to work at the agroecology farm. Eventually I found what is really a job that encompassed all that I had been longing for, but I guess I didn’t even know when I first started my journey. That’s what I was looking for.”

Volunteers at a farm
Mika’el Chabeda and friends volunteer at a farm.

Learning pollinating techniques while working with renowned sweet potato breeder Craig Yencho fed his interest in hands-on results. That summer he completed a summer internship with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. During the Agroecology Scholars Program in Research and Extension (ASPIRE) program, he learned about agriculture’s impact on communities and worked with Jim Holland, a maize geneticist with NC State and the US Department of Agriculture, on a field study.

Mika Chabeda in Copenhagen, Denmark
Mika’el Chabeda studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Study (and Soccer) Abroad

One of Chabeda’s favorite experiences was studying in Copenhagen, Denmark, in spring 2023. His plant physiology class there inspired him to add a plant biology major. His applied ecology course exposed him to European approaches to agroecology. And a class in enology (wine and winemaking) was fun.

So was European football. Chabeda, a forward or winger, had played on the NC State club soccer team with an international student from Copenhagen, who invited him to play there on a division three team. Chabeda revealed in the experience, which included playing in Danish stadiums.

Traveling and moving have long been part of Chabeda’s life. With a dad in the military, he was born in Texas and lived in Massachusetts and Maine before coming to North Carolina. As his last semester of undergraduate work draws to a close, Chabeda’s planning to reconnect with friends and visit extended family in Kenya.

Mika Chabeda scores a soccer goal
Mika’el Chabeda scores a goal during an NC State club soccer game.

Meanwhile, he’s exploring job openings. Could he work as an Extension agent in the South or Southwest? For an international agroforestry organization? A national park like Yellowstone?

Right now, those are all job possibilities, and he’s fielding well-meaning questions about what’s next.

“And whenever you inevitably say, I’m still figuring it out, it’s a process, people reassure you and tell you that whatever you do now doesn’t completely define who you’ll be,” Chabeda says.

“I try to think of my life as a journey, so I just try to take one step at a time to see what’s next, and eventually it’ll lead you to where you need to go.”

Mika with mother and sister on campus
Mika’el Chabeda with his mom and sister on campus