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CALS Student Grows Native American Unity and Community on Campus

McKenzie at the Dance of the Harvest Moon Powwow
 CALS senior McKenzie Cummings with the Lumbee Tribe at the Dance of the Harvest Moon Powwow in her hometown of Pembroke, North Carolina.

McKenzie Cummings has filled her time in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) with experiences that have helped her grow both professionally and culturally while also helping fellow students do the same.

As a member of the Lumbee Tribe, Cummings is passionate about her heritage and has worked to create opportunities for Native American students to find a community on campus.

“I’m proud that I was involved with the Native footprint growing on campus and that I helped people feel more included and involved,” says Cummings, who will graduate in December with bachelor’s degrees in animal science and agricultural business management and a minor in entrepreneurship.

McKenzie Cummings at a waterfall in Spain
Cummings at the “La leyenda del Salto de la Novia” waterfall in Spain while on a study abroad trip.

After participating in the Native Education Forum (NEF) and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) in high school, she knew she wanted to continue her involvement in similar groups in college, but North Carolina State University’s Native student groups weren’t very active when she arrived with a group of fellow Lumbee students.

For more than three years, Cummings has helped grow NC State’s AISES chapter and the Native American Student Association (NASA) by coordinating meetings and events.

“Sometimes it can be nerve-racking to try to find a community, but when you have something that’s already established, not only can you find it, but there’s also someone that can pull you in and make you feel way more comfortable,” she says. “It leaves a larger footprint for someone to fall into.”

Last year, the groups raised funding for eight students to attend the national AISES conference, and this year, they raised enough funds to send 20 people.

This month, NC State is celebrating Native American Heritage Month — coordinated by Multicultural Student Affairs (MSA) — with events from both organizations. The groups are especially excited to celebrate this year because of the university’s new Land Acknowledgment, which has been in the works for several years.

“It’s really nice to be able to go to a safe space, which MSA has been for multicultural students,” Cummings says. “Having that space has been great, and then being able to add to that space with our Native American population has been awesome.”

“It’s important to be able to have little pieces of you on such a huge campus.”

This year’s theme for Native American Heritage Month, “Unity is Sacred,” emphasizes the importance of community and gathering together. To celebrate, there was a food drive, a Chat n Chew, a Wellness Wheel, cooking demonstrations and a dance workshop on campus. NASA and AISES will also host their annual powwow with crafts, food, vendors, music and dancing on March 30.

“It’s important to be able to have little pieces of you on such a huge campus,” she says. “Even though we may be small, it’s great to know that’s part of you, your culture and your community.”

McKenzie Cummings standing next to aging parmesean cheese in Europe
While in Italy for her P4 internship, Cummings visited one of the largest Parmigiano Reggiano factories to learn about cheese-making. The week-long trip included tours of five different sustainable agricultural operations.

Cummings has also grown her community on campus through internships and study-abroad opportunities. Her first internship was with the Center of Environmental Farming System’s Agroecology Scholars Program in Research and Extension. At the time, she was majoring in animal science, but the experience expanded her interests to other areas of agriculture, particularly sustainable food systems.

“That really opened my eyes to my interest in the industry, food systems and adding my ag business major,” she remembers. “We got to learn a lot. It also concentrated my focus on dairy cows.”

To further explore her interest in dairy cows, Cummings worked at the dairy farm on campus for a year and a half. She also completed a summer research project with Stephanie Ward, a dairy science Extension specialist and associate professor in the Department of Animal Science, on fly management and disease control in dairy cows.

Last summer, Cummings interned with the Pigs, Poultry, the Planet and Data-Driven Problem-Solving (P4) program, which included a trip to Italy to learn about food systems. Additionally, she traveled to Spain with the Sustainable Entrepreneurship study abroad program.

McKenzie Cummings at the Leaning Tower of Pizza
Cummings also visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa while in Italy.

Currently, she’s the assistant manager for the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Program’s Entrepreneurship Clinic, where she helps manage class projects with partner companies.

As she nears graduation, Cummings is proud that she has repeatedly pushed herself out of her comfort zone to try new things, and she encourages other students to do the same.

“There are a lot of opportunities on campus,” Cummings says. “If students don’t feel at home, there has to be a club or something out there that you can step out of the box and go and do. They really made my time at NC State a lot better.”