By Aysia Morton
Howard University senior Aissa Dearing-Benton has been awarded a 2022 Marshall Scholarship. Dearing-Benton is the fourth student in Howard’s history to be awarded the prestigious postgraduate scholarship. The Marshall Scholarship funds up to 50 young American scholars to study at any institution in the United Kingdom (UK) at the graduate level. She will study environmental change and management at the University of Oxford.
Dearing-Benton’s quest for justice began years before college. “I never thought I would go into environmental science and study climate change further,” she said. “I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, in a low-income community of color, and we faced environmental injustices—we lived closer to a landfill than a decent grocery store. But we never knew the jargon to describe living through that.”
The Marshall scholar’s love for the environment started at a young age. She found solace in nature when she needed an escape from home and often played in a landfill transformed into a park.
“I’ve always had this love for nature, but I thought I would be organizing around racial equity,” said Dearing-Benton. “In high school, we saw issues like being the only student of color in your AP classes and school resource officers disproportionately targeting students of color. My friends and I would organize around those issues. It wasn’t until later that I realized environmental issues were at the center of racial equity.”
She discovered how to combine her passions for social justice and the environment and founded the Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative with the help of her friends.
“The initiative sought to set an intentional space for young people of color in climate justice,” she said. “Instead of learning about polar bears and sea level rise, which are important environmental issues, where do young people of color see themselves in that? We advocated for issues impacting the community,” she continued.
This discovery led her to choose Howard University’s Environmental Science program for her undergraduate degree.
“Howard’s Environmental Science program is unique from any other environmental programs I saw in the United States. It’s interdisciplinary and has social justice at its center. I was excited to dive into the intersection of race, wealth and environmental experiences.”
Dearing-Benton transferred to Howard from her high schools’ early college program. The program allowed her to take two years of college credits in high school and apply those to her time at the university.
During her junior year of college, she began thinking about graduate school, but had “no idea” how she wanted to pursue her future endeavors with environmental justice. She applied to scholarships under the recommendation of Howard’s Scholarship Office.
“The Marshall Scholarship was kind of serendipitous. I’d already been looking at the University of Oxford and their Environmental Change and Management Program,” she said. “When I saw the Marshall Scholarship was giving students a full ride to the UK university of their choice, I was like dang maybe I can apply and see what happens. So, I applied and fortunately got it.”
Dearing-Benton feels nervous and excited to embark on this new challenge. The scholarship lasts for one year and after it ends, she plans to return to Durham.
“I feel very centered in Durham, and I want to support the community that has supported my upbringing,” she explained.
Though she no longer runs the Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative and no longer faces the environmental justice issues in Durham, she’s been thinking of how to support the initiative as an adult ally.
“I’ve been thinking about starting a farm to help feed the community, maybe as a nonprofit or a climate tech start up using permaculture and agroecology techniques to help sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but also feed people seasonal vegetables at an affordable cost,” she explained.
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