Group Minds Its MANRRS & Cultivates Careers
Minority organization seeks to attract youth to agriculture
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Bluegrass country seemed the perfect setting last month for a gathering of students planning careers in agriculture. The 15th annual Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences conference here was a show of vitality for an organization that exists in large part to strengthen its constituency and the sense of community within the profession.
More than 900 students attended the weekend event in a downtown hotel not far from Lexington’s rolling green horse pastures and white picket fences.
If the rural locale seemed appropriate, it wasn’t necessarily a given. Conference leaders and speakers — agriculture professionals and academics — spent much of their “on” time spreading the gospel that, more than ever, the business of agriculture includes a world of opportunities beyond farming, and happens in labs, corporations and at universities.
“We need to tell students what agriculture really is — a science, says Dr. Charles Magee, professor and director of biological and agricultural systems engineering at Florida A&M University.
The weekend’s disciplinary conference sessions proved the point, with topics such as plant biology, aquaculture, natural resources professions and people helping animals. Another popular topic focused on technologies used to assess rangeland health, a study of the integrity of the soil and ecological processes of rangelands, which are primarily grasslands, shrublands and savannas.
Magee is perhaps the association’s most avid agriculture salesman, with a broad view that brings matters of history, economy and society to bear on the field and its laborers and professionals.
“People still think we’re talking about 40 acres and a mule,” Magee says. “I tell them, ‘We’re actually talking about 800 acres and a John Deere.'”
African American children almost have to rebel against their parents if they want to pursue agricultural sciences, he says. In his ongoing effort to recruit students into Florida A&M’s agriculture program, he writes introductory letters to parents of incoming freshmen, explaining the diversity and attractions of the agriculture field.
One deterrent to greater student enrollment may be relatively low salaries, says Dexter Wakefield, the association’s graduate student president.
“Kids will say, ‘I don’t want to grow up and work with cows, sows and plows the rest of my life. I want to make money.'”
A database on food and agriculture education from Texas A&M University shows that recent average starting salaries for agriculture, natural resources and related sciences graduates were about $26,000 for bachelor’s degree-holders, $32,000 for master’s and $44,000 for doctorate holders.
A Big Impact
Ultimately the association’s work pertains to more than helping students succeed, and more than a commitment to diversity. In a field that addresses the food economy, water quality and use of natural resources, representation is critical, members say.
Recognizing this, students and faculty members at Michigan and Pennsylvania state universities began the organization in 1986. They wanted to create a platform for business, government and universities to recruit minority graduates.
Since then, the association has seen impressive growth, including an expansion into high schools with junior chapters. The organization also has made an effort to reach out to diverse constituencies, with a recent emphasis on nurturing relationships with Native Americans.
There are chapters on about 50 campuses nationwide and one in Canada. The chapters bring high-school and junior-high students to their campuses to expose them to the study of agriculture, and chapters compete nationally in recruitment campaigns.
Also, the Multi-Cultural Scholars program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is designed to create incentives for students to major in agriculture by matching scholarships given by colleges and universities.
The annual conference attendance the first year was 50; this year’s conference saw almost 1,000 registered, along with numerous representatives from higher education institutions, government and industry there to recruit interns and permanent employees.
Career fair exhibitors numbered about 55. Corporate employers included Anheuser-Busch, ConAgra Frozen Foods, Consolidated Grain, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont, Mars Inc., Monsanto, Pfizer Animal Health, Ralston Purina and Wegmans Food Markets. Many of the employers attend to push their internship programs.
The University of Kentucky’s cooperative extension service offers a summer program that gives students experience in the field and a $1,500 stipend. Currently, the program has 25-30 interns, a dozen of whom are minority students. Richard Carraway, the area program director for the extension service, says the internship programs are an effective way to recruit students, but competition from industry makes it difficult because, “They’re making very attractive offers to students.”
Wakefield, who is studying agricultural education at Purdue University, says he’s gotten many offers from potential employers in academia, and sees interested peers in private industry getting competitive offers as well.
With the annual career fair, formal relationships with employers who establish internship programs and a Web site that informs students of new employment opportunities, the association is a boost to the job search, Wakefield says.
“Before I joined MANRRS, I never knew about the Eli-Lilly’s, Dow Agrosciences and Elanco,” Wakefield says. The son of an agriculture teacher, he has opted to pursue teaching with an emphasis on multicultural education.
The association also helps students with professional
The conference included mock interviews with critiques, a public speaking contest, and sessions on job seeking and succeeding in the workplace.
Mentoring is part of the organization’s lifeblood, says president-elect Dr. Jane Ford-Wilson, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a plant biologist, based at Alabama A&M University.
“We follow the students through the years,” she says. “I just saw a student I met at one of the early conferences. She’s in vet school now.”
Carl Butler is executive officer for MANRRS, and he is pleased with how far the organization has come. “If you look at when the organization first started, I don’t think anyone imagined they would ultimately have something of this magnitude,” he says, looking around at the ballroom emptying of hundreds of students after an awards presentation. “We’ve really made an impact.”
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