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Zixuan Gao didn’t spend her last free summer like a typical rising college freshman.

Gao, or “Yen Yen” as her friends call her, spent six weeks this past summer at the White House Liaison Office of the United States Department of Agriculture as an intern through the Wallace-Carver fellowship. Beyond typical office duties like answering phone calls, Gao also vetted candidates for different board positions within the USDA and attended weekly teleconferences with undersecretaries in various USDA departments.

The road to Washington , however, was a long one. During her sophomore year of high school, Gao began research on a small Polynesian island called Tuvalu, where she studied the island’s unique soil composition. She came up with ideas to increase local crop growth and presented them at the Indiana Youth Institute.

From there, five delegates from Indiana, including Gao, were chosen to attend the Global Youth Institute in Des Moines, Iowa, where she presented her research. At the Institute, Gao also heard from international leaders including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Ertharin Cousin , director of the World Food Programme.

It was only then that she was invited to apply to the Wallace-Carver fellowship, which partners with the World Food Prize and the USDA. The fellowship, started by agriculture experts, connects students with internships related to food and economic policy. Gao was one of 33 students from 27 states chosen for a paid internship through the fellowship.

“This whole experience has been a whirlwind, and it’s been incredible that I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many people in a field that I’m so interested in,” Gao said.

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