International agriculture alumnus aspires to serve, uplift global community

Amy Duke
June 13, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The best-laid plans often go awry, and sometimes that is a good thing, as it was for Ben Bianco, who now has his “dream job” in international development thanks to a chance encounter, an epiphany moment and Penn State.

As Bianco explained, his heart was set on studying pre-med when he was admitted to the University in 2009, a decision that was steeped in family influence as three of his siblings were embarking on medical careers.

“I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I entered college,” said Bianco, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh. “One brother is a surgeon and two others were studying medicine, so I thought I could follow in their footsteps. I wanted to help people and thought that the only way to do that was through a traditional career, like being a doctor.”

However, a fortuitous encounter with a priest who was visiting the University from India set him on a different path -- one that would that lead him to multiple, long-term volunteer trips on three continents. As a result, he learned to speak Moroccan Arabic fluently and eventually embarked on a career as a business-development professional with DAI Global, an international development company with offices in Washington, D.C.

“The priest, Father Raphael Innasimuthu, inspired me to explore my interests in volunteerism and traveling overseas,” Bianco said. “I took a semester off and taught English to students in India, and it was life changing. When I came back, I knew I wanted to solve problems in the global arena, especially those related to health, agriculture and youth development.”

Ben Bianco and priest

Ben Bianco, left, is shown with friend Fr. Raphael Innasimuthu. “Fr. Raphael Innasimuthu has devoted his life to transforming communities in desperate need through hard work and spiritual guidance. I’m forever grateful to him for welcoming me into his home, introducing me to his village and inspiring my lifelong mission,” Bianco said.

IMAGE: Ben Bianco

To do that, Bianco returned to Penn State, changing his major to biobehavioral health and pairing it with a minor in international agriculture. Known as INTAG, the minor is an interdisciplinary program in the College of Agricultural Sciences that helps students understand and appreciate international development and the agricultural systems of various cultures.

The INTAG curriculum, in tandem with experiences that included international service and several internships, enabled Bianco to expand his academic and professional horizons.

“As an undergrad, I was very interested in the intersection between public health and international agriculture, especially in food security and nutrition,” Bianco said. “Through the INTAG minor, I was able to explore those issues not just in a classroom, but in the field, too.”

His undergraduate portfolio includes serving as a volunteer for the charitable organization, Association for India’s Development in Kerala, India, an opportunity he learned about from Indian graduate students at Penn State. While in India, he also conducted an independent research project on farming as part of his INTAG studies.

“Before I went to India, I met another Penn State student from India who taught me some phrases in Tamil, which is a south Indian language,” Bianco said. “At Penn State, I was globally connected through a culturally diverse student body.”

Ben Bianco teaching at afterschool program

In collaboration with partner Rural Women Development Trust, Ben Bianco delivers an interactive English lesson to students at an after-school program in India, using a call-and-response method that combines his Peace Corps training and Tamil vocabulary he learned from tutors and friends at Penn State.  

IMAGE: Ben Bianco

Bianco’s long-awaited Peace Corps invitation came days before commencement. He was thrilled to be placed in Morocco but needed to decide what to do for the nine months between graduation and departure for service.

He spent this time in various international development internships at nongovernmental organizations in Washington, D.C., including the Center for International Study and Development and Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture, or CNFA, an organization he became familiar with during an INTAG trip to Washington, D.C., in 2014.

As a global program support intern for CNFA, he took part in carrying out U.S. Agency for International Development Feed the Future contracts in Ethiopia, Pakistan and Azerbaijan. He also helped to develop an Ebola risk preparedness program in Africa. He said this internship marked a pivotal point in his life.

“Without being introduced to the CNFA and the international development landscape on that Washington, D.C., trip with INTAG, I don’t think I would have found the path to my current career,” Bianco said. “Landing that internship was directly related to my INTAG minor.”

Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of the college's Office of International Programs, noted that one of the “greatest joys” of running the INTAG minor is to see students grow in their vision of the world and alumni succeed in their careers. “Ben has certainly done both,” she said. “It has been a delight to reconnect with him and work with him to help inspire the next generation of INTAG graduates.”

After nine months of getting the lay of the land in D.C., Bianco joined the Peace Corps, serving as a youth development volunteer in Morocco, where he designed programs for at-risk youth to improve literacy, promote gender equity and discourage them from dropping out of school.

After Peace Corps, Bianco returned to India for six months to teach English at a children’s home, strengthening friendships that he created on previous visits. His experiences prepared him for his current position at DAI, where he coordinates USAID proposals ranging up to $100 million for development projects focusing on economic growth and governance programs in the Middle East and North Africa regions.

Bianco said this work is important in helping the U.S. to promote peace and prosperity in countries that are engaged in political tension and military conflict.

“When countries have productive agriculture, good education, health systems and thriving small businesses, they are less likely to be vulnerable to instability and conflict, and that’s good for the entire world,” he said. “Through agricultural development funded by the U.S. government, we can give people the tools and knowledge they need to create businesses and put food on the table for their families.”

Bianco, who is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at American University while working full time, enjoys sharing his journey with students and young alumni who are launching their careers. Recently, he met with INTAG undergraduates while they were touring DAI. Along with professional advice, he encouraged them to take advantage of the “endless” opportunities at Penn State.

“I advise students who are interested in a career in international development to specialize in a particular subfield so they can stand out in the job market,” he said. “The INTAG minor is a great way to do that, but there’s also health, environment, education … you name it, Penn State’s got it.”

More information on the INTAG minor is available at https://agsci.psu.edu/international/intag.

 

  • Ben Bianco Penn State INTAG

    Ben Bianco explained that the Indian tradition of hospitality, while beautiful, can impede visitors from volunteering. “All I did was pick up a jug to help water plants, and it became this huge spectacle -- kids laughing, people taking pictures and elders staring in confusion and disapproval,” he said. For this reason, he came to realize that he could do more good by writing reports and grant applications than doing physical labor. 

    IMAGE: Ben Bianco
Last Updated June 13, 2019