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Senior’s appetite for success a drive beyond graduation

A seasoned traveler and dedicated environmentalist, Colby Halligan ’15 has overcome personal loss to challenge world hunger as a student and beyond.

Colby Halligan '15

Colby Halligan’s hands are dirty, and she’s completely fine with it. She didn’t used to be, though.

Halligan, a senior environmental studies and public health studies major, spent most of her childhood working on farms in her hometown of Manchester Village, Vt., a small, rural town made up of a bustling organic farming community. She doesn’t like using gloves—she prefers to “really feel” the soil—so years of outdoor work has left traces of dirt permanently etched in her hands.

During her first two years at Elon, she scrubbed them raw, embarrassed to shake the hand of a classmate or professor. Now, her seasoned hands are her greatest source of pride. Halligan’s passion for sustainable food production has taken her around the world in her time at Elon. She sampled the local cuisine and explored the diverse landscape of Vietnam.

She lived and worked in a Maasai village for six months in Kenya. She spent last summer in Italy interning at a program that gives hands-on experience in organic farming—and her adventures are just getting started.

“If I can travel the world and every grain in my hand can symbolize one person who is less hungry, what does that mean?” Halligan says. “If I can have all the soils of the world as grains in my hand, by the time I’m 80, a lot more people will be sated.”

Dealing with heartbreak

The origins of her food fervor are characterized by both joy and heartache. Her mother, Whitney, was an executive chef in Boston and Cape Cod, Mass., before she and her husband, David, settled down in Manchester Village and had five children, of which Halligan is the third. Whitney maintained a sizable vegetable garden and was always making nutritious meals for her children, instilling in her daughter an appreciation for where her food came from and how it was prepared.

Her father believes her love of food comes from her love for her mom. It also didn’t hurt that one of the family friends, Scout Proft, is an organic farmer with whom Halligan spent time growing up. “Colby became an everyday part of our family when she was in high school,” Proft says. Her son, Luen, is one of Halligan’s best friends. “She would come help out at the farm when she needed quiet from the intensity of her siblings.”

Whitney was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, when Halligan was 16. She was given only three months to live, but fought for four years before passing away in January 2013. Colby, then an Elon sophomore, was on her Winter Term study abroad course in Vietnam when she died.

“Deciding to go on the trip was a celebration of the connection I had with my mother,” she says. “We had a saying: ‘Point your finger in the direction that scares you the most and sprint towards it.’ I wanted to honor her resilience by doing just that, and at that time in my life, it was leaving the country for the first time and traveling to Vietnam. I knew she would be proud of me because so few people leave our little town.”

When her parents dropped her off at the airport, she knew she wouldn’t see her mother again. “There was something beautiful about being able to say goodbye to her as I was embarking on my first international trip,” she says. “I think both of us knew it wouldn’t be my last.”

Becoming a globe-trotter

They predicted correctly—Vietnam was just the beginning. She went on to spend fall semester of her junior year in Kenya and Tanzania studying wildlife management through the nonprofit School for Field Studies. She lived in a traditional Maasai boma, a village that typically consists of several mud huts surrounded by a fence. A sister wife and her family live in each hut, and one husband is married to each of the wives. All of the wives pitch in to feed and care for one another’s children. “It took some getting used to, but there was a very strong sense of sisterhood in my boma,” Halligan says. “It really redefined what community means to me.”

The physical demands of her stay were truly life altering. In addition to developing an intimate relationship with her home-stay family, she spent her days collecting basic necessities to survive. “It was incredibly intense to go from Elon and having everything you need at your fingertips to suddenly being like, ‘How am I going to carry all the water I need for a day on my back? How am I going to get enough calories to be able to sustain myself?’” she recalls.

Upon her return to campus, Halligan added a huge success to her growing list of academic accomplishments. She was named a recipient of the 2014 Udall Scholarship, a national award that provided $5,000 in funding toward her studies and a four-day orientation in Tucson, Ariz., to hear from environmental public policy experts and elected officials. Halligan is the third Elon student to secure the Udall. But her success didn’t stop there. She was also named a recipient of the summer 2014 Spannocchia Internship, which gives young adults the chance to gain hands-on experience promoting sustainable agriculture on an 1,100-acre estate in northern Tuscany. More than 250 people from around the world applied for the seven available spots. The average age of interns is 25, making Halligan one of the youngest interns ever chosen.

During the program, she performed more than 30 hours of manual labor each week while studying Italian and participating in educational presentations and field trips. “I was farming acres of a beautiful, three-terraced 18th century garden by myself for days at a time, all while under the supervision of a woman born and raised in northern Tuscany who didn’t speak any English,” Halligan says. “It was physically and mentally intensive, but for me, I really found out what I want to do and what type of woman I want to be.”

Looking to the future

But the biggest challenge Halligan will face comes this summer after she graduates. She plans on moving to northern California to work as a research assistant to Ecology Action’s John Jeavons, who many consider to be the father of modern sustainable agriculture. His Grow Biointensive Sustainable Mini-Farming method is used in more than 140 countries, enabling small farmers to increase yields, build fertile soil up to 60 times faster than nature and use 66 percent less water per pound of food, compared with commercial practices.

“Colby’s entire college career has been preparing her for this opportunity, and I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified for the job,” says senior Catherine Palmer, Halligan’s best friend at Elon. “Her passion for the earth and good food will fuel her work, and her eagerness to learn will make her an invaluable member of the team. This is the perfect launching pad for her career.”

Halligan will work with Jeavons to create a new plot design aimed at satiating women during their pregnancies and lactation periods. She then hopes to compose a thesis based on her work to take to Stanford University and obtain a master’s degree in public health with a concentration in maternal nutrition and sustainable agriculture. “My biggest accomplishment will be to work with malnourished women and children to provide them the sustenance they need to live healthy and productive lives,” she says. “If we want to sustain life, we have to start with mothers.”

As one could guess, this pursuit stems from Halligan’s intimate connection with her own mother, as well as her desire to be a mother someday. “Colby has a huge amount of empathy for others, and the loss of her mother was the most difficult thing she has had to face in her life,” her father says. “To her credit, Colby has used the experience to her advantage and has dedicated herself to travel and other pursuits, which her mother strongly encouraged her to do.”

For Halligan, a future combating world hunger is her way of devoting her life to her mother’s memory. After all, to her, food is love, and working with food will always remind her of her mother’s unending compassion. “My papa says all the time, ‘You’re a Halligan, you don’t give up,’” she says. “My mother’s maiden name is Williams, so we also say, ‘You’re a Williams; you’re a warrior.’ I think I’m both—I’m a fighter and a warrior, and if I want to love as intensely as I can, I have to keep fighting.

“You can’t witness my mother’s fight and not be inspired to live as wholeheartedly as you can.”

By Kyra Gemberling ’14

Keren Rivas,
5/4/2015 3:50 PM