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McKenzie McCaleb (bottom left) visits palm oil farmers to observe current production practices outside of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown. (Photo By McKenzie McCaleb)

Big Mission. Bigger Dreams.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Media Contact: Kristin Knight | Communications and Marketing Manager | 405-744-1130 |

Oklahoma State University offers a wide array of opportunities to help students discover their passions during college.

For 25-year-old McKenzie McCaleb of Sulphur, Oklahoma, her journey of education and service began as she earned a bachelor’s degree in global studies at OSU.

“Studying global studies really helped me develop a deeper passion for helping those in need,” McCaleb said. “I chose to further my education at OSU because of the support system I had here.”

As she completed her degree, McCaleb started in the OSU Master of International Agriculture Program by taking graduate courses simultaneously with her last undergraduate ones. Now a second-year graduate student in MIAP, McCaleb has spent time in the classroom, in West Africa and in Washington, D.C.

As part of her studies, McCaleb traveled to Sierra Leone in summer 2022. MIAP guidelines require every student to have a month-long international experience.

These international experiences help broaden student perspectives of other cultures to create well-rounded individuals, said Magda Rich, MIAP adjunct instructor.

“McKenzie’s trip looked a little different than most who go through the program,” Rich said. “The owner of a palm oil farm in the Sierra Leone area reached out to MIAP wanting someone to help market their product and boost production levels.

“We thought McKenzie would be an excellent candidate, given her past experience with international travel and her Native American background,” Rich added.

McCaleb, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, served as a student ambassador for the OSU Center for Sovereign Nations for four years.

“My grandfather spent the majority of his career working with the Oklahoma tribal community,” McCaleb said. “By developing my passion for tribal advocacy, I have been able to use those experiences with my international experiences.”

For many students, the most difficult part is not traveling but finding the right place for them, McCaleb said.

Students normally pick what countries they would like to travel to, Rich said, and the program advisers research the country to help ensure each student’s safety before traveling.

“We challenge our students to try and push themselves outside of their comfort zones and experience something new,” Rich said. “In McKenzie’s case, she had an experience few have a chance to have.”

Prior to her travel, McCaleb registered with the U.S. Department of State as being in Sierra Leone so her information would be documented.

This registration is one of the many procedures put in place for safety during international experiences, McCaleb said.

McCaleb researched the country and the culture extensively before leaving for Sierra Leone, she said. She met with several colleagues who were from the area or knew about the West African country.

She researched the history, what crops were produced in the area, and the impact agriculture had on the country, she said.

“It is respectful to the people and the place you’re visiting to be at least familiar with their culture and their language,” McCaleb said. “You should conduct research before traveling for your safety and security purposes.

“Learning a little bit about the country can also reduce traveler’s anxiety and prepare you for when you arrive,” she added.

Karl Rich, MIAP director, also traveled to Sierra Leone to help McCaleb smoothly transition into the country and culture.

“In MIAP, the best part about traveling is you’ll be helping others,” McCaleb said.

While in Sierra Leone, McCaleb visited Goldtree, a palm oil plant and plantation, and worked on one of the plantations, Beulah Farms.

“The palm oil farm is located about 45 minutes outside of Freetown, near the town Waterloo,” McCaleb said. “The farm is located in a village called Matindi Town.”

The Goldtree mill processes the palm oil fruit grown by 10,000 farmers on more than 21,000 acres.

“We helped them build a marketing strategy for their product and create accounting strategies for Beulah to use after we left,” McCaleb said.

McCaleb spent two months in Sierra Leone, helping the company develop their strategies and use problem-solving skills to help maintain palm oil plants.

“Typically, palm oil plants take about three to six years to begin to be established and many obstacles can occur,” McCaleb said. “During my time at Beulah Farms, there was an issue with a certain species of giant rat called ‘grasscutters.’

“The rats would eat away at the base of the palm seedlings’ trunks, not giving them a chance to reach maturity,” she said. “The farm workers combated these animals by hunting and eating them when they could.”

McCaleb said she was able to connect with the Sierra Leone community by using her experiences and family history. McCaleb said she enjoys meeting new people, hearing their stories, and experiencing new cultures.

Traveling has become one of McCaleb’s favorite things to do, she said, and the time she spent in Sierra Leone strengthened her passion for serving others.

“When I traveled abroad before, I learned how to adapt to unexpected changes that can occur when moving to another country,” McCaleb said.

McCaleb’s passion to help others succeed and reach their goals drives her to be a voice for those who need one the most, she said.

“When I travel, it never fails to surprise me just how alike we all are as human beings,” McCaleb said. “Even if you are completely unaware of the culture you are visiting, showing respect and sharing a smile are two things that can often be understood universally. We should share our cultures and not gatekeep them.”

One of the most rewarding aspects McCaleb experienced was how well the different belief systems in Sierra Leone coexist, she said.

“Sierra Leone’s primary religions are Islam and Christianity,” McCaleb said. “The people infuse their traditional beliefs into their everyday lives. In Freetown, there is a mosque or a church on every corner.

“Each morning, I would hear the Islamic prayer, and nearly every afternoon I would listen to attendees at the Methodist church down the street sing their hearts out,” she added.

As McCaleb looks toward the future, she hopes to transition into tribal extension and advocacy after graduation and continue helping others, she said.

In February 2023, McCaleb served as a tribal liaison in Washington, D.C., and advocated for more Native American producer inclusion in the 2023 Farm Bill. Speaking with other tribes and tribal councils was humbling, she added.

“Tribal work is similar to international work,” McCaleb said. “To be successful, you have to find people willing to support your cause, gain the trust of the communities you want to help, and put your heart into what you are doing and why you are doing it.”

Story By: Gwen Fowler | Cowboy Journal

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