Even a short conversation with Emma Rice makes it abundantly clear that the 20-year-old Michigan State University student is passionate about the value of higher education. Having just finished her sophomore year and currently pursuing a sustainability-related internship with the federal government in Washington, D.C., the Haslett, Mich., native is quick to espouse the virtues of studying environmental economics and how environmental issues related to climate change are disproportionately impacting marginalized populations.

It is this passion that inspired Professor Melissa McKendree, who taught Rice in her farm management class, to nominate the student for a Top Hat Scholarship—an honor she was awarded in early June when she was informed she’d won $20,000 towards her studies. “I’m so grateful I still can’t really believe it,” Rice said. “It will open up so many opportunities for me. There’s a study abroad program in Belize on sustainable agricultural practices that I’ve really wanted to do that I may now be able to afford, and having this money also really opens the door for grad school.”

Higher ed opportunities

Education has always played an important role in Rice’s life. Her mother, a public school special ed teacher who wasn’t able to attend college due to financial constraints, always emphasized the importance of higher education. “I feel I have a duty to use my education to help those who have not been as fortunate, and to make my mother proud,” said Rice. “Plus, I’ve always loved to learn, so pursuing higher education not only provides opportunities for personal growth, it also allows me to pursue my passion.”

Upon joining the MSU student body two years ago, Rice found a home in the College of Agriculture. “Because MSU is a pioneering land-grant university, I’ve been able to see firsthand the difference that a lot of the research I’m doing is making in the community,” she said. “And, thanks to MSU, I’ve had so many great opportunities, like attending conferences through an organization called Agriculture Future of America and meetings about general leadership in the agricultural field.”

Rice has also worked as an economic research student for Professor McKendree on a project called “vote by gap,” examining state level initiatives regarding animal welfare and GMO labeling issues that are currently passing through government. In 2018, Rice completed an internship with MSU’s Department of Horticulture researching sustainable agricultural practices. Through a partnership between MSU and USAID that brings students from African nations like Rwanda, Burundi and Zambia to MSU to study, Rice and her fellow students have gained exposure to a diversity of international perspectives.

Making connections with Top Hat

Rice credits Professor McKendree’s use of Top Hat in the classroom with building a community amongst students. “Top Hat quizzes were held at the end of class, forcing me to think about all of the information I just consumed as opposed to leaving lecture without really processing the class material,” she said. “We were often encouraged to work with our neighbors on Top Hat quizzes, which created connections between students.” The professor would also display a graph with students’ answers after the quiz was complete, which gave the entire class, including the instructor, a visual representation of any knowledge gaps that existed and an indication of what material needed to be covered more thoroughly in the last few minutes of class.

It was Rice’s embrace of Top Hat that ultimately inspired her professor to nominate her for the Top Hat Scholarship, a prize that will help Rice pursue her dreams during and after undergrad. Rice’s career goal is to use agricultural economic policy to increase food security and her dream job is to work for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. To get there, Rice is hoping to enter grad school for applied economics at a land grant university. “I always loved learning, so grad school has been on my mind, but money was always a barrier because I didn’t know if I could afford two more years of school,” she said. “This scholarship makes it a lot more feasible.”

Jeff Grabill, the Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning and Technology at MSU, commends Top Hat for providing a more feedback-rich environment for students and believes Rice’s win will make a substantial and transformative impact on her life. “Our commitment is to try to graduate every student who comes to East Lansing with the lowest debt possible,” he said. “This should allow Emma to be able to make choices that she might not be able to make if she had more financial constraints.”

Learn more about the Top Hat Scholarship here and you can read about the first place winner, Delia Grantham here.