Kortni Blalock ’23, now a master’s degree student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is one of USDA’s first cohort of agricultural trade fellows.

Kortni Blalock ‘23 found out two days before Christmas last year what she would be doing in the fall — and perhaps for the rest of her life.

On Dec. 23, Blalock got word that she had won a new U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) Diversity Fellowship. The graduate school fellowship, valued at approximately $106,000, has set Blalock on a path to become a proponent for U.S. agriculture around the globe.

“This fellowship means so much to me and my family,” said Blalock, who graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina A&T State University in May. “Not having the financial burden of graduate school on my mom means everything. It was a great Christmas gift to me.”

For Blalock, the fellowship was a reward for two outstanding years at A&T. A native of Conyers, Georgia, Blalock arrived in Greensboro after two years at Louisiana State University, where she aspired to be a veterinarian. But the COVID-19 pandemic and a change in majors prompted Blalock to make big life and college changes. She won a USDA 1890 National Scholars Program award to study at A&T, where she chose to major in agricultural and environmental systems with a concentration in agribusiness and food industry management.

“At A&T, I felt comfortable on campus. For the first time, I met people who looked like me who had a passion for agriculture,” Blalock said. “A&T was a big catalyst for why I applied for the FAS fellowship because the university gave me so many opportunities and taught me to be confident in what I wanted to do.”

Blalock attends a Women in Agribusiness conference. As a senior at A&T, she represented CAES at the USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum and the Women in Agribusiness conference.

At A&T, Blalock spent many hours at Carver Hall. She credited Nate Adkins, a departmental administrative support associate, with answering her questions, listening to her concerns and giving her advice. Blalock also said her advisor, Kenrett Y. Jefferson-Moore, Ph.D., pushed her to join the Transfer Academic Achievement Program so she could meet other CAES students and take part in the Agricultural Export Market Challenge sponsored by USDA. Blalock and her teammates, fellow CAES students Taylor Thomas and Dhara DeVane, won the 2023 competition.

Blalock was active in MANRRS, the national society for minorities interested in agriculture and science careers, and attended two of the group’s national conferences. As a senior she represented CAES at the USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum and the Women in Agribusiness conference.

Jefferson-Moore, professor and chair of the Department of Agribusiness, Applied Economics and Agriscience Education, said she has never met a more focused and determined young person than Blalock.

“Kortni is comfortable choosing paths that are outside of the norm,” Jefferson-Moore said. “I am not surprised that the USDA fellowship program spoke to her. The world is where she has set her sights and I could not be prouder.”

In a summer internship in 2022 with FAS — which serves as the “eyes, ears, and voice for U.S. agriculture around the world” — Blalock connected with another Aggie. Valerie Brown earned two A&T degrees and now serves as an FAS regional agricultural counselor in the United Arab Emirates. Brown was creating the new FAS Diversity Fellowship and encouraged Blalock to apply.

Blalock was among about 100 college seniors who sought the new fellowship, which is jointly administered by USDA and Howard University. Two days before Christmas, she learned she was one of four winners.

The fellowship provides a scholarship and a stipend for two years of graduate study. Fellows are assigned an FAS mentor and receive professional development to prepare them for FAS careers. The fellowship also includes two internships. This summer, Blalock is working for FAS in Washington, where she is working with the oilseed team of the global commodity analysis division. Next summer, Blalock expects to be assigned to a U.S. embassy or consulate overseas.

In August, Blalock will begin work on a master’s degree in agricultural economics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. After graduation, her fellowship commits her to five years of service with. Blalock hopes to make a career out of it.

“Being with FAS is a perfect mix of my interests. You get to travel, and you get to be on the forefront of agriculture,” Blalock said. “Agriculture and agribusiness encompasses everything — from what we wear to what we eat — and there’s something new every day in agriculture. All of these aspects make this fellowship the perfect opportunity.”