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K-State associate dean of ag discusses changes, trends in educating students


Remember when the word "green" only described a color and terms like "biofuels" and "urban agriculture" needed an explanation?

Plenty has changed over the years, and educating students for careers in agriculture has changed right along with global agriculture, said Don Boggs, Kansas State University's associate dean of agriculture.

For many years K-State has trained students to move into production agriculture, feed and flour mills, greenhouses, agribusinesses and more, Boggs said.

"People are always associating with the production side of agriculture, but they often forget the input and post-harvest side. Many graduates choose careers in marketing, value-added processing and the biosciences," he said.

"We need students with strong science and technical backgrounds," Boggs added, citing the need for students to move into such fields as biotechnology, molecular genetics, milling and bakery science and agricultural engineering.

Another change, he said, is the increased emphasis on sustainability: "Farmers have always been good stewards of the land, but there's more research now devoted to ensuring that agricultural practices are environmentally sound."

Students also must learn the global aspects of agriculture. College of Agriculture faculty and administrators now encourage students to participate in international programs like never before. With about half of every Kansas wheat crop exported to other countries and a strong emphasis on international marketing of other commodities, Boggs said it's important for students to understand the global marketplace--and where Kansas and the United States fit in.

Agriculture students have opportunities to study abroad, either for a semester or two or through shorter faculty-led study trips. In the past five years, students have studied in France, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Germany, Australia, Mexico, China, South America and New Zealand.

In addition, K-State's College of Agriculture has worked to build a more diverse student population through outreach programs, some of which go directly into urban centers. The idea is to explain to students who have no background in agriculture that there are opportunities not only in production agriculture but also in such areas as food product development, biofuels, food safety and other fields.

Recent university data show that less than one-third of the more than 2,000 students in K-State's College of Agriculture have lived on a farm and 50 percent of this year's incoming class is composed of women. And Johnson County, a suburban county in the Kansas City metropolitan area, represents the College of Agriculture's largest single-county enrollment.

Emily Surdez, a junior from Sabetha, Kan., is one of those students who did not grow up on a farm. The agriculture communications and journalism major hopes to become a book editor and possibly a motivational speaker upon graduation. She has taken advantage of both an internship within the College of Agriculture and studied in the Czech Republic through a K-State program.

"Two summers ago I had an internship with the College of Ag Academic Programs office," Surdez said. "This allowed me to help with orientation and enrollment. I was able to learn more about the wide array of students that make up the College of Agriculture. It was neat to learn about their backgrounds and know that people from any background have the ability to work and serve in the agricultural industry."

The college has an Office for Diversity Programs and a student chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences, also referred to as MANRRS. Just under 8 percent of the agriculture student body is ethnically diverse. Programs such as the MAPS Summer Bridge Program, Kauffman Program and Cargill Project Impact are ways in which high school students can learn about college life and majors in agriculture.

"Through the Kauffman and Cargill programs, we've brought hundreds of students to K-State to learn about being a college student and majoring in the College of Agriculture," Boggs said in describing some of the programs. In addition, many of the Recreational and Resource Programs attract nontraditional students. Programs such as Golf Course Management, Landscape Design, Sports Turf Management, Park Management and Conservation, and Wildlife and Outdoor Enterprise Management are attracting students to the College of Agriculture who may not have considered being an agriculture major a few years ago.

He said that even in the current economic downturn, employment prospects for agriculture majors are fairly good. He noted that at the most recent university-sponsored career fairs held for students, as many agriculture-related companies participated as had been the case before the economic downturn. Additionally, nearly all College of Agriculture graduates find employment within six months of graduation.

A 1998 to 2008 survey of K-State agriculture graduates indicated which direction respondents' careers took: 21 percent went into positions as scientists or related specialists; 21 percent as managers or financial specialists; 11 percent into production agriculture; 11 percent into marketing, merchandising and sales; 7 percent in social service; and 7 percent in communication or education. The remainder went into further training in professional careers (medical, dental or veterinary school, etc.) or graduate study.

Citing a national study, college officials said there will continue to be a shortage in the number of university graduates with expertise in an agriculture field. In addition, one in every five people in the United States is employed in an agriculture-related job.

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