Left to right: Ebony Webber; Cathy Sutphin, Ph.D.; Tony Allen, Ph.D.; Pamala Morris, Ph.D.; Ben West, Ph.D.
On July 30, five higher education thought leaders convened virtually to share their stories and perspectives on the future of higher education, focusing primarily on the role colleges and universities can and should play in diversifying the U.S. agricultural workforce — by supporting students, forging partnerships, and fostering inclusive cultures.
The hour-long webinar was the second of a three-part summer series organized and hosted by Together We Grow (TWG), an industry-led consortium of food and agriculture companies, nonprofits, academic institutions, and government agencies working to address the complex challenges of global hunger and food insecurity.
More than 50 TWG members and constituents tuned in as Executive Director Kristin Kirkpatrick began by thanking and acknowledging teachers who continue educating and supporting students through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, while also navigating the nation’s current “reckoning with racism and social justice.”
Ebony Webber, chief operating officer at Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), is always on the lookout for ways to connect students to college and career pathways. For her, listening to and engaging with students directly is critical to the process.
“Our organization is primarily student-driven,” Webber said, noting that graduate and undergraduate students comprise the majority of the organization’s more than 2,000 members, with chapters and programs at 55 colleges and universities across the U.S.
“We set up these platforms and opportunities, and then get out of their way,” she said, stressing the importance of seeking student input and feedback while “continuing to be agile enough to adapt.”
Given the present and impending challenges around campus visits and travel generally, Webber is confident many of the organization’s industry partners will seek new ways to connect with students.
MANRRS, she said, will continue bridging students to career pathways. The organization is also exploring ways to support students’ mental, emotional, and social health.
When COVID-19 hit Delaware State University, an HBCU (historically Black college or university), the majority of its more than 5,000 students went home; roughly 200 students, however, didn’t have a safe place to go beyond campus. DSU President Tony Allen, Ph.D., described half of those remaining students as “otherwise-homeless,” and said the other half were from “very vulnerable communities.”
“We took the time to understand their situations, kept them on campus, and gave them the care and concern that they needed,” said Allen. He shared the stories of two DSU students whose academic and personal lives were devastated by the loss of family members to COVID-19.
Reflecting on these and other barriers to students’ academic success and overall well-being, Allen decided to engage corporate partners “in the reality that was happening at our institution.” DSU was able to raise nearly $1.5 million in two months, allowing the university to provide more resources and support for its students.
Allen shared his vision for the future of higher education in the face of the double-pandemic of COVID-19 and racial injustice: “We will not be a more perfect union if we cannot provide access and quality higher education to all. Now, it’s up to us to sustain the discussion and build positive linkages, which is why I’m such a believer in Together We Grow.”
Webber agreed: “In all of our organizations, there’s work to be done to continue to diversify and build out equitable programs.”
Impact through partnership
In his remarks, Ben West, Ph.D., director of strategic partnerships at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, highlighted the role of partnerships in overcoming barriers to educational and career pathways, especially within STEM- and agriculture-related fields.
West described the recruitment of a broader, more diverse talent pipeline into these fields as “absolutely paramount” — “the foundation of Together We Grow.”
“It’s not enough just to know it, to believe it, or even to invest resources in it,” he said. “We have to understand the realities about the barriers, and then develop strategies, approaches, and initiatives to overcome them.”
Roughly 180,000 youth are involved in UTIA’s 4-H programs; roughly 12% of the youth population in Tennessee. Through continued outreach and partnerships, he intends to grow that figure, while ensuring it reflects the state’s diversity.
Cathy M. Sutphin, Ph.D., serves as the associate director at Virginia Cooperative Extension, which encompasses Virginia’s 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs, driving youth- and agriculture-focused initiatives statewide. Many of its programs are made possible by support from industry partnerships and resources from the state’s land-grant universities: Virginia Tech and Virginia State University.
Through initiatives focused on professional development, teacher training, and work-based learning opportunities for youth, Sutphin hopes to shift the culture — “in our college, in Extension, and ultimately in communities across Virginia” — and create pipelines for diverse talent to enter the agriculture workforce.
“To really change the culture, we have to invest in a variety of avenues, across partnerships and across time,” she said.
The panel highlighted the urgent need for colleges and universities across the U.S. to turn to their students — especially BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students — for input and guidance in working to foster diverse and inclusive campus cultures, policies, and curricula.
Pamala Morris, Ph.D., serves as assistant dean for Purdue University’s College of Agriculture and primary advisor for its MANRRS chapter.
“Our BIPOC population has to have a place where they can feel nurtured, where they can be supported, where they can gain access to resources,” Morris said, sharing how MANRRS serves Purdue’s BIPOC students in the College of Agriculture and the related sciences.
In response to COVID-19 and racial unrest, Morris hopes to see more colleges and universities focus on inclusive excellence, “by embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion in everything that we do.”
After a number of graduate students recently spoke out against racial injustice, Morris and her team began hosting “Coming Together for Racial Understanding” conversations. More than 140 students joined the first dialogue to explore and share their identities, experiences, and stories.
“These conversations are extremely important; they’ve always been important,” said Morris. “But there’s an urgency now for us to continue to work together to make a difference in campuses across this country, and in the agriculture industry.”
Connecting the panel’s emergent themes, Kirkpatrick reemphasized the value and intention behind the collective efforts of Together We Grow and its members.
“These conversations seek to uncover the actions we need to take to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive future for the food and agriculture industry, which Together We Grow is committed to building,” Kirkpatrick said.
About Together We Grow
Together We Grow is an agribusiness consortium with more than 20 members, including major agricultural commodities companies, educational institutions, government agencies, and others committed to improving and expanding diversity in agribusiness. The consortium sponsors research and provides a platform to share best practices for building future workforce capacity. TWG is expanding its reach by establishing the Center for an Enhanced Workforce in Agriculture at the CSU Spur campus at the future National Western Center, which broke ground this year and is slated to open in 2022. For more information, visit twg.csusystem.edu.