Five Illinois students earn top honors at national conference

Image compilation with three panels. On the left, a young woman wearing a formal dress points at large letters spelling MANRRS; in the center, three young women stand together, smiling at the viewer. On the right, a young woman holds a poster showing her prizewinning photo.
L to R: Ashley Equíhua, Karime Beltrán Gutiérrez, Esmeralda López, Nguyen Ha, and Elaine Guel are the five ACES students to win national awards at the 2024 MANRRS conference in Chicago.

Last week, hundreds of high school and university students from around the country convened in Chicago for the 38th annual Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS) Training Conference and Career Expo. Among them were 22 students representing MANRRS-Illinois, a Registered Student Organization within the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

“We were excited to bring the most MANRRS-Illinois students ever to a national conference this year,” said Diana Rodríguez, advisor and coordinator of diversity programs for ACES. 

Of the MANRRS-Illinois students, five took top honors as first-, second-, and third-prize contest winners among conference attendees. MANRRS members, including collegiate and Junior MANRRS students in high school, compete at the national conference in categories such as public speaking, oral research presentations, and more. 

Karime Beltrán Gutiérrez, a freshman in the Department of Animal Sciences, had never competed in a national contest at the collegiate level, but her public speaking prowess launched her to the top spot in her category.

“This year's theme, ‘Aspire to Inspire,’ was incredibly broad, presenting a challenge. I initially struggled and even delayed working on my speech for a couple of weeks because I couldn't quite find the right flow,” Beltrán Gutiérrez said. “One day, I decided to sit down at the library and pour out whatever came to mind. Once I had a clear theme for my speech, the words flowed effortlessly, and I could feel the passion resonating in every sentence.”

Beltrán Gutiérrez was one of only a few Latinas in the finals and the first Illinois student in years to win the Public Speaking Competition.

“It felt like all the stress, hard work, and late nights rehearsing my speech paid off,” she said. “I understand that it's not just about the recognition, but it was a fantastic opportunity to establish my presence in the professional sphere. Given my interest in the veterinary field, which can be highly competitive, having my name associated with MANRRS through the conference speech could be beneficial for networking with companies familiar with the organization.”

Fellow animal sciences student Esmeralda López, a senior, took second place in the Oral Research Division I, for biological sciences. She presented her work with animal sciences assistant professor Isabella Condotta to create artificial intelligence models promoting animal welfare. 

It’s López’s second time placing in the top five in a research-related contest at a national MANRRS conference, reinforcing her interest and confidence in pursuing a research career. Her goal is to earn both a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and a Doctor of Philosophy degree.

“Seeing that I’m doing a good job is a positive sign that I should keep doing what I’m doing,” she said.

Nguyen Ha and Elaine Guel, both seniors in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, came in third in their contests: the National Written Essay Contest and the National Photo Contest, respectively.  

Finally, nutrition and health junior Ashley Equíhua won the contest to name the theme for the 2025 national MANRRS conference: “I Am, Because You Are.” The theme will inform programming for the entire 2025 conference in Memphis, Tennessee, including its contests. 

Equíhua said the theme came to her when thinking back to her study abroad experience in Cape Town, South Africa. During her travels, she learned about the African concept of “ubuntu,” which translates to “I am because you are.” 

“Ubuntu acknowledges the togetherness of individuals through shared humanity. It recognizes our interconnectedness and oneness as human beings,” she said. “I was able to tie this back to MANRRS and how the organization emphasizes togetherness through developing skills, providing professional development, and acting as a guide.”

She described winning as an incredible honor, especially because her theme will be showcased to all chapters, nationally and internationally. “I am glad my experience allowed them to spread ubuntu into the organization.”

Rodríguez said, “Our winners are extremely happy and we are very proud of them. They all did a fantastic job! Winning nationally with over 500 competition submissions is a great accomplishment.”

The conference isn’t just about winning awards, of course. All of the MANRRS-Illinois attendees experienced professional development opportunities, networking, and a career fair that often lands seniors their first jobs or graduate school placements after graduation. The experience was a bright spot for Beltrán Gutiérrez

“The conference was very rewarding overall, but the career fair was a highlight. It offers great networking opportunities and community engagement, allowing students and professionals to explore various companies in the agricultural field,” she said. “Even if your major doesn't directly match a company's focus, they often find ways to make connections and offer internships for students interested in getting involved over the summer.” 

Spending five days at a conference can be both exhilarating and exhausting. For MANRRS-Illinois students, coming back to the ACES campus means returning with a deep sense of belonging. 

“MANRRS-Illinois is all about creating a supportive community for those of us still exploring our paths and encouraging young minds to dive into agriculture,” Beltrán Gutiérrez said. “Being part of MANRRS has connected me with like-minded individuals, leading to lifelong friendships. Here, I feel valued and empowered, knowing that my voice matters and that I have what it takes to thrive in my chosen field down the road.”  

López added, “MANRRS has literally been my ray of sunlight when I thought there were only  clouds and rain. Without MANRRS, I wouldn't have the support systems I have today. It also helped me find my voice, my confidence, and my leadership skills. Through MANRRS, I’ve learned there are many people like me fighting the good fight, trying to solve big issues, even if it means speaking up when your voice is shaking.”

To learn more and get involved in future regional and national conferences, visit the MANRRS-Illinois website or contact Diana Rodríguez at or Roxanne Patiño at

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