Auburn Spotlight, Sydney Herndon

I never would’ve thought having graduated that I could move halfway across the world and still be part of that Auburn community but it’s great.
Sydney Herndon
2013 Alumna

Spotlight Interview

While at Auburn, Sydney Herndon studied abroad in Spain, Costa Rica and Fiji, and cofounded the campus chapter of ONE, an international campaign aimed at ending extreme poverty. After graduating magna cum laude in August 2013 with a double major in anthropology and art history and a double minor in Spanish and sustainability, the Birmingham, Alabama-native interned at the World Food Programme headquarters in Rome, where she focuses on emergency preparedness and response. While in Italy, Herndon was one of four scholars named fellows of Auburn’s Hunger Solutions Institute. The fellowship program aims at supporting young professionals working to solve hunger at home and abroad. When her internship with the World Food Programme was complete, she was hired as an Emergency Preparedness and Support Response Officer. Among her many professional responsibilities, Herndon conducted operational reviews of the organization’s emergency responses to past events including the 2013 Central African Republic conflict, the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Last fall, Herndon was one of six former or current Auburn students nominated for the prestigious Marshall Scholarship. This year, she was one of three people in the country to earn a Kirchner Food Fellowship for 2016-17. Herndon is the first Auburn student to receive the distinction since the Kirchner Impact Foundation began the fellowship program three years ago. The fellowship provides funding and training to millennials assisting promising conscious agricultural businesses. Herndon will return to the United States this fall to pursue a Master’s in Development Practice at Emory University, where her research will focus on the social and cultural impacts of small- and medium-sized social enterprises.

What attracted you to Auburn in the first place?

When I first began considering universities, I really sought somewhere that offered plenty of opportunities to try new things and explore my options for the future. To be honest, Auburn wasn’t the first school that popped into my mind in that regard; I grew up an Auburn fan (in fact, my parents met there) and I very much associated the university with three things: Greek life, football games and its strong academic excellence in veterinary medicine and engineering. And while all of those things are part of what makes Auburn special, there are so many other aspects of Auburn that I hadn’t yet discovered.

After talking to my older sister, who was attending Auburn at the time, and several campus visits, I learned that there was a lot more to Auburn than first met my eye, such as the extensive study abroad options, the assortment of majors and minors and the abundance of clubs and extra-curricular activities. Couple that with the Auburn Family mentality, which I truly believe is unique only to Auburn, and I was assured that Auburn was the optimal place to complete my undergraduate studies.

Having studied anthropology, art history, Spanish and sustainability, what did you hope to do with all that knowledge?

The diversity of my studies was not premeditated; rather it exhibits how my career ambitions evolved over the course of my undergraduate studies. My underlying interest was always learning about and understanding societies and cultures other than my own, which is why I choose my anthropology major. I aimed to apply this interest with my first career ambition of curating art from South America, which explains why I undertook an art history major and Spanish minor. However, during my junior year and being strongly influenced by time I spent in Costa Rica, my career ambitions evolved towards wanting to work in international sustainable development. For this reason, I added the sustainability minor at the start of my senior year.  While it may seem like a hodgepodge of studies, the knowledge I gained really helped prepare me for the work I did at the United Nations World Food Programme and will serve as a strong foundation for my graduate studies. 

Auburn offers opportunities for students to study just about anywhere in the world. Why did you decide on Spain, Costa Rica and Fiji?

I went to Salamanca, Spain the summer after my freshman year. I had been out of the country for the first time just a year before and I was eager to go back to Europe for a longer period – improving my Spanish was the perfect excuse! I went through the Auburn Abroad Liberal Arts study abroad program, and while it was for only a month, it was a great way to test the water for living abroad, something I thought I would want to do after graduation.

After that experience, I was hooked and knew I didn’t want to wait until graduation to go abroad again. As soon as I was back in Auburn, I began to plot my next trip, determined to immerse myself even further into a new culture. The spring semester of my junior year I went to Costa Rica for seven months, five of which I lived with a host family in Heredia and studied at the National University. I spent the other two months as an intern at a sustainability consulting firm in Guanacaste.

The opportunity to go to Fiji occurred out of the blue. I had never planned to go there, but one day I was speaking with my professor about my sustainability minor capstone course and she told me I could complete it by doing the Sustainability in Action study abroad course in Fiji. Needless to say, I was sold and even delayed my graduation from May until August so I could go. We lived mostly off the grid on a small island in Northern Fiji. Over the month, we lived and worked closely with the Mali community – from learning how to open coconuts and weave palm mats to experiencing how ecotourism initiatives can be built in partnership with the local communities rather than exploiting them. It was a great way to end my undergraduate studies.

Talk about your most rewarding experience with the World Food Programme in Rome.

Part of my role at WFP was traveling to different countries following major emergencies, such as the 2013 Central African Republic conflict or the 2015 Nepal earthquake, to conduct interviews with the communities that WFP assists. In short, we try to capture what went well during the emergency response, but also what did not go so well and how WFP can do even better. This in-country activity is the most rewarding because we witness the positive work our organization does to help mitigate the effects of conflicts or disasters, but even more so, it pushes us to continue to learn how we can improve our organizational systems, processes and mechanisms to ultimately better meet our objective of saving lives and protecting livelihoods during emergencies.

What will be your role as a 2016-2017 Kirchner Food Fellow?

While recognizing the role that humanitarian organizations, such as WFP, can play in ameliorating some of the world’s most pressing issues, I believe that social enterprise can spearhead the sustainable and results-based innovations that will tackle global food insecurity. The Kirchner Food Fellowship aims to train the next generation of capital allocators capable of understanding and investing effectively in the early-stage innovations that can transform the way we feed the planet. As a Kirchner Food Fellow, I look forward to receiving hands-on training and experience in identifying, funding and supporting socially-conscious entrepreneurial businesses which positively impact global food security.