In her time at Cornell, Maria DiGiovanni ’23 explored and confronted a multitude of challenges that impact our food system. From co-founding the Soil Factory to co-leading Cornell Hunger Relief, she’s put classroom lessons into practice. Her contributions have not gone unnoticed — Maria was named a Merrill Presidential Scholar (2023) and a Cargill Global Scholar (2021-23). In partnership with the Cornell Farmworker Program, her research with local farmworkers questioned how a national labor policy would impact the livelihoods of farmworkers and their families, and stressed the importance of including their voices in immigration reform. Recently selected as a Fulbright Scholar in Italy, Maria will explore how young Italians in Cosenza, Calabria maintain sustainable rural livelihoods.
What are the big challenges that you seek to confront in your work?
I am interested in exploring the future of food and work, which remains ambiguous amid contemporary challenges like climate change and automation. Given how much agriculture contributes to employment around the world, the intersection of these two challenges will become only more important to sustainable development in the coming decades. I want to investigate the historical and contemporary forces that shape agricultural systems, from local economic conditions to international trade policies, to determine how we can support more dignified work in rural spaces. Through research and advocacy, we must generate a paradigm shift in our perspectives of agricultural professions, recognizing the deserved magnitude of their economic and cultural value.
To me, food is about people. Creating a more just food system starts with respecting the people that uphold it.
Tell us about your work with the Cornell Farmworker Program.
After being interested in the Cornell Farmworker Program (CFP) for some time, I reached out to Mary Jo Dudley, the CFP Director, to supervise my senior honors thesis. The CFP had been keeping watch of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), a federal bill that proposed to provide a pathway to legal status for undocumented farmworkers but also presented many risks, such as the mandatory enforcement of E-Verify for all agricultural employers. When it passed the US House of Representatives in July 2021, the perspectives of undocumented farmworkers were largely unheard in mainstream news coverage, which otherwise celebrated the legislation as a promising compromise. Our research therefore sought to understand how the undocumented workforce in New York State viewed the legislation and anticipated it to affect them as a population. Through semi-structured interviews with farmworkers, service providers, and other stakeholders and news media analysis, we examined to what extent the FWMA would facilitate immigration reform that reflects the realities of the undocumented workforce and how other actors shaped the misleadingly favorable policy discourse. FWMA has not made further progress in the federal legislature since, but even this failed attempt at compromise indicates that we are far from creating just immigration reform for farmworkers.
Doing an honors thesis from start to finish taught me a lot about the challenges and opportunities within participatory research, especially regarding vulnerable populations. I could not have done it without the boundless support and expertise of Mary Jo Dudley, who is a trusted researcher and advocate in the NYS farmworker community.
You’ve recently been named a Fulbright Scholar. What excites you about this opportunity?
For the next year, I will explore sustainable livelihood management among young Calabrian farmers with Prof. Annamaria Vitale of University of Calabria as a US-Italy Fulbright Scholar. Combining my studies in international agriculture and rural development with my Italian minor, I am interested in evaluating how differences in Italian food culture materialize in the factors that promote or impair agricultural livelihoods.
My paternal grandfather had emigrated from Sicily, Italy to the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1960s after his family could no longer make a living cultivating wheat. His story continues to puzzle me. If agriculture and cuisine are at the heart of Italian culture, it seems that agricultural livelihoods ought to have more respect, or at least a greater reward.
My research as a Fulbright Scholar will help me envision pathways to reinvigorate rural spaces and draw future generations to food and agriculture in Italy and beyond.
I could not have created a successful proposal without the experience I obtained in the Agroecology Scholars Program in Research and Extension in Summer 2022, executing the second stage of a panel study on resilience among North Carolina niche-meat farmers in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic with North Carolina State sociologists Prof. Michael Schulman and Dr. Andrew Smolski. Afterwards, I aim to continue my studies of rural development in a graduate program.
You were a CALS Global Fellow. Tell us about that experience!
I was accepted to the Summer 2021 cohort of the CALS Global Fellows Program, when it was unclear whether Fellows would be able to participate in-person due to pandemic restrictions. Even when it became clear we would be remote, I could not pass up the opportunity to work with Gustolab International, the program’s Italian partner. I received a personalized assignment with Linaria, a Rome-based nonprofit that uses sustainable design to promote sustainable and inclusive urban spaces. I had the chance to use my Italian language and creative skills to create digital materials for their new urban biodiversity campaign, such as producing a video that is still on their website today. Through weekly Zoom meetings, Gustolab joined me and the other Cornell interns to discuss a range of topics, such as Italian culture and intercultural communication, at a distance. I also had a wonderful time learning from my cohort during the pre- and post-experience courses taught by Jess Hawkey.
What is one of research projects that has influenced you the most?
When Chris Barrett offered me a research opportunity in Fall 2021, I was only partially aware that I would begin working with one of the most prominent agricultural and development economists out there. The range of opportunities I have gained since our first meeting have undeniably accelerated my development as a researcher and writer. From among those opportunities, I helped with data gathering and analysis such that I am a co-author of a peer-reviewed article in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy describing and evaluating the STAARS Program, a professional development program for early career African scholars that Chris Barrett founded and runs. Partaking in this research group introduced me to countless scholars that inspired my path ahead, including my interest in pursuing graduate studies. This semester, I have enjoyed working as his teaching assistant for AEM 2000: Contemporary Controversies in the Global Economy with a team that demonstrates just the kind of high-quality students he attracts and helps grow. I was honored to invite Professor Barrett to the convocation for the Merrill Presidential Scholars Program, which recognizes the Cornell faculty member who has made the most significant contribution to my education.
What is one of your favorite Cornell memories?
I will always treasure the memory of the first launch party I organized as Events Chair of Crème de Cornell in Fall of 2021. A line of students had crowded outside the Memorial Room, waiting for the clock to hit eight. When the doors opened, students quickly dashed inside, snagged a free cupcake, and mingled to the tune of a live band featuring a member of our Culinary Team. The decorated hall swelled my heart with pride. It captured the magic that is building community through a collective enthusiasm for food. That sense of community is something I hope to continue creating in all my academic and creative endeavors, even after my time as a Cornell undergrad comes to an end.
What advice would you give to students?
Always reach out to professors! As a close-knit community, everyone in GDEV is willing to exchange interests and ideas. There are countless opportunities to get involved with faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates in research, advocacy, and extension.
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