The Office of Multicultural Programs helps students learn about career opportunities in agriculture: (from left) Moriah Hurt, president of Purdue’s chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS); Pamala Morris, OMP director; and Myron McClure, program manager. (Photo by Tom Campbell)
By Nancy Alexander
Multicultural Students Begin to See
Agriculture in a New Light
Sophomore Chloe Jefferson is among the College of Agriculture’s first group of Multicultural Scholars. The goal of the USDA-funded scholarship program is to increase the number of outstanding students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the food and agricultural sciences. (Photo by Tom Campbell)
When sophomore agribusiness major Chloe Jefferson showed up for her first agricultural economics class at Purdue, she found herself the only student of color in a room of 200-plus students. Jefferson, a graduate of North Central High School in Indianapolis, says she's always been comfortable around different cultural influences. "It's not like I need to have people of color in my classes," she says. "I never felt unwelcome. It's just that being the only one makes you take notice."
The College of Agriculture's Office of Multicultural Programs is working to change that, to ensure that classrooms include students underrepresented in courses like Jefferson's, and to offer the benefits of agricultural study to those who might not even be aware they exist. Such students could not only be ethnic minorities—African American, Hispanic/Latino and Native American—but also first-generation college students, and, in some departments, women.
Purdue Agriculture makes recruiting and supporting underrepresented students a priority in response to market demand, says Pamala V. Morris, assistant dean of Agriculture and director of Multicultural Programs: "Agribusinesses recognize the value of diversity. We're living in a global community; employers know they have to diversify the pipeline."
To meet that demand, OMP has built a continuum of recruitment and support services that stretches from middle school to graduate school. The percentage of underrepresented minority students in the College of Agriculture increased from 4.2 percent in 2008 to 6.3 percent in 2012; total college undergraduate enrollment increased about 8 percent over the same period.
Targeting Urban High-Schoolers
OMP staff working to attract underrepresented minorities to Purdue must help students realize that while production is an important part of agriculture, the range of professional opportunities is diverse.
Chloe Jefferson's perspective is typical of urban students: "I didn't know how broad agriculture was until I learned that it really covers every topic."
OMP recruiter and Program Manager Myron McClure, an agricultural and biological engineering alumnus recruited as a track athlete from California, understands students' reluctance. He spent summers in his youth working at his grandparents' farms in Louisiana and Arkansas—and didn't like it much. "The farm was how I related to agriculture," he says. "[Prospective] students can't come up with anything I didn't say myself. But I can also tell them the College of Agriculture was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."
McClure focuses his recruiting primarily on school systems with larger populations of ethnic minorities in urban areas like Hammond, Gary, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and Chicago.
OMP works closely with Science Bound, a partnership among Purdue, Indianapolis Public Schools and the Indianapolis business community designed to prepare low-income students for careers in agriculture and the STEM disciplines. McClure taps into Science Bound events, some of which start in early middle school. "I'm just trying to plant the seed," he says of his presentations to younger students. Everyone's saying, ‘I want to be an engineer, I want to be a scientist,' and I'm saying, ‘Be an agricultural engineer, be an agricultural scientist.'"
Upward Bound, a federally funded program that helps high school students prepare for college, is another resource for OMP recruiting. McClure, a former participant himself, visits Upward Bound students in northwest Indiana. He wants them all to go to college, but he especially hopes a few might find their way to Purdue Agriculture.
Retaining Talented Students
Kara McKinney, a food science major from Indianapolis, attended Academic Boot Camp. While the classroom work was rigorous, she believes the head start will pay off. (Photo by Tom Campbell)
"It's one thing to recruit; to retain them is another focus of this office," Morris says. Toward that end, OMP administers the Multicultural Scholars Program, a USDA-funded scholarship to increase the number of outstanding students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the food and agricultural sciences.
The first cohort of six Multicultural Scholars that arrived last fall included Chloe Jefferson. Seminars help knit the group together and build the skills and strategies needed to succeed in Agriculture. "MSP made me feel more comfortable in the classroom," Jefferson says.
Another student resource and retention tool, Academic Boot Camp, occurs on campus over five intensive weeks each summer. This year about 65 multi-ethnic students learned about the college lifestyle and previewed their academics.
They live in Purdue housing and take general courses and Animal Sciences 102, which was chosen to appeal to students' interest and to present broad, basic agricultural concepts, Morris says. From the boot camp, they arrive in the fall with friends in different majors, knowing the campus and anticipating what's ahead academically.
"They develop, in a sense, a family," Morris says. "That's what contributes to their success."
Building a Pipeline
Purdue's Hoosier Agribusiness Science Academy is structured to expose even more students to agriculture—and at an earlier age. It starts with an agriculture-themed field day with activities and applied experiences for students in sixth through eighth grades in targeted locations.
"The literature clearly says we need to start earlier than high school to develop students' sense of inquiry about careers other than those they've heard of," Morris explains.
In May 2013 a new component of HASA, Environmental Revolution Day, was piloted. Indianapolis middle-schoolers visited the Indiana State Fairgrounds, where academic departments from Purdue Agriculture focused on different aspects of the field: global issues, biodiversity, plant science, environmental economics and ecosystems. Based on the pilot's success it will be expanded next year.
HASA's Summer Institute brings high-schoolers to West Lafayette. For two weeks this July, 40 students lived in the dorms, ate college food and chose one of three agriculture tracks: biodiversity and carbon footprint; food and energy security/climate change; or renewable resources and sustainable development. They were immersed in a research-based world of study through presentations, lab experiments, mini-lectures, workshops and field trips to farms and agribusinesses.
Many of the mostly rising juniors and seniors came from Indiana's urban areas and were first-generation prospective college students.
Purdue Senior Alex Martinez spent his second July as a HASA counselor, which he likens to being "a 24-hour chaperone." But beyond making sure his high-school charges were in the right place at the right time, he wanted to set a good example while living with the male students in Earhart Hall: "I would hope that being a little older and in college and responsible, I was a role model."
While helping students prepare for postsecondary education, HASA opens their eyes to opportunities in agriculture. "It really piqued their interest," Martinez says. "A lot of them are city kids, so they did have that notion that agriculture's just about farming. But even in the first few days, you could see that notion was blown wide open for them."
At the far end of the recruiting continuum are potential graduate students. In a three-way investment by the graduate school, faculty and OMP called the Agricultural Summer Research Opportunity Program, faculty mentor students who work in their labs over the summer. By targeting students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-Serving Institutions, the program encourages talented undergraduates from social and economic backgrounds that are underrepresented in research careers to pursue graduate education.
In summer 2013 four undergraduates were matched with faculty mentors in agricultural economics, food science, animal sciences, and botany and plant pathology. One, a rising senior, already intends to apply to Purdue for graduate study.