Angel Cruz, Student at Furman University

Angel Cruz '08

Hometown: Burnsville, North Carolina

Major: Biology

Angel Cruz had a clear plan: Become a medical doctor. Turned out, though, all that meticulous hand-washing just wasn’t going to work once Furman’s liberal arts program showed her how much she loves having dirt under her fingernails.

An agroecology class sparked an interest in sustainability science, and philosophy courses taught by her mentor, Philosophy Professor David Gandolfo, challenged Cruz with ethical questions. Gandolfo, chair of the university’s Poverty Studies program, encouraged her to try to answer them with an internship in El Salvador through the Summer Internships Fellows, and once Cruz saw how many people could be helped if they could simply grow their own food, the spark grew into a fire that has her set to graduate from North Carolina State University in the spring of 2017 with a Ph.D. in agroecology.

Agroecology views agricultural areas as ecosystems, and without electricity or running water, as is the situation in much of rural El Salvador, there’s really no other way to farm. Cruz graduated cum laude, and, armed with a $35,000 Compton Mentor Fellowship, returned to the Central American country, where for nearly two more years she worked with the locals building sustainable farms. “In that first month of work, I saw the power of community and the pure brute force of Salvadorans,” she said. “The available land had not been planted in 20-plus years, and it was reforested and on a steep hillside. Our only tools were our hands, machetes, pick-axes and shovels.”

Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Cruz’s knowledge was the most powerful tool of all, and it’s one she plans to wield mightily for the rest of her life.

“I once heard someone say, ‘Find where your greatest desires meet the world’s greatest needs,’” she said. “I believe I have found both in the villages of El Salvador.”