Howard University student named 2022 Marshall Scholar

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By Aysia Morton,
Special at AFRO

Aissa Dearing-Benton, a senior at Howard University, has been awarded a 2022 Marshall Scholarship. Dearing-Benton is the fourth student in Howard’s history to receive the prestigious graduate scholarship. The Marshall Scholarship funds up to fifty young American scholars to study at any institution in the United Kingdom (UK) at postgraduate 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 more,” she said. “I grew up in Durham, NC, 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 that.

The Marshall Scholar’s love for the environment began at a young age. She found solace in nature when she needed an escape from her home, and often played in a landfill-turned-park.

“I’ve always had this love for nature, but I thought I would organize around racial equity,” Dearing-Benton said. “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 were organizing around these issues. It wasn’t until later that I realized that environmental issues were central to 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 was about creating an intentional space for young people of color in climate justice,” she said. “Instead of learning about polar bears and rising sea levels, which are significant environmental issues, where do young people of color see themselves in this? We’ve been championing 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 among all other environmental programs I have seen in the United States. It is interdisciplinary and has social justice at its center. I was thrilled to delve 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 them to her time in college.

During her freshman year of college, she began thinking about graduate school, but had “no idea” how she wanted to pursue her future environmental justice endeavors. She applied for scholarships on the recommendation of Howard’s scholarship office.

“The Marshall Scholarship was a bit of a coincidence. I had already looked at the University of Oxford and its environmental change and management program,” she said. “When I saw that the Marshall Scholarship offered students a full route to the UK university of their choice, I thought maybe I could apply and see what happens. So I applied and I was lucky to get it.

Dearing-Benton feels nervous and excited about taking on this new challenge. The scholarship lasts for a year and after it ends, she plans to return to Durham.

“I feel very Durham-centric and want to support the community that supported my upbringing,” she explained.

Although she no longer leads the Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative and no longer deals with environmental justice issues in Durham, she has thought about how to support the initiative as an adult ally.

“I thought about starting a farm to help feed the community, maybe as a nonprofit or climate tech start-up using permaculture and agroecology techniques to help sequester carbon dioxide of the atmosphere, but also feed people with seasonal vegetables at an affordable cost,” she explained.

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