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College Students Gain Valuable Career Experience Through USDA Partnerships

By Melissa Blair, Public Affairs Specialist

Texas A&M University Kingsville (TAMUK) College of Agriculture students are gaining a wealth of valuable experience and knowledge each year through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Career Experience Program.

Since 2012 more than 300 undergraduate and graduate students at TAMUK along with students from other Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) have worked with USDA, local, state and national agencies through internships and research opportunities. A total of 51 students have interned with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) with 29 in Texas and 22 in other states. More than 70 students have interned with USDA Farm Service Agency, Agricultural Marketing Service, Agricultural Research Service, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service and Forest Service.   

“Through the Career Experience Program there are five USDA projects that provide funds for students to pursue internships in their fields of interest related to careers in the agricultural, biological and food industry fields,” said Dr. Shad Nelson, dean for the TAMUK Dick and Mary Lewis Kleberg College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “The projects are designed to enhance the educational programs of outstanding students who are capable of enhancing the nation’s food, agricultural, and natural resource scientific and professional work force.”

The program has also taken students to different USDA conferences in Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Miami, and Albuquerque as well as to professional conferences such as the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities and NAFTA where the students presented posters regarding their internship experiences. USDA projects include:

START NOW: Student Training in Agricultural Research Techniques by Novel Occupational Workshops

STEP 2 USDA Research Success: South Texas Excellence Program to USDA Research Success

Wheels of Change:  A Consortium to Develop Champions in Agriculture in the Areas of Sustainable Energy and Natural Resource Management.

USDA Education and Research Experience in Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (Drones or UAS) for Precision Agriculture

USDA Natural Resources Career Development Program (NRCDP)

Opportunities Enhance Student’s Interest in Working for USDA

Through the Natural Resource Career Development Program (NRCDP), Rick Tafoya, with the National Hispanic Special Emphasis Program Manager Diversity and Recruitment Branch, placed 29 college students from four HSIs into summer internships with NRCS across the country in eight states. Texas NRCS worked with two additional TAMUK students on their 10-week internship placement in Robstown and Kerrville.

Tafoya said, “The students have expressed how this experience was exactly what they needed to confirm that they are headed in the right direction with respect to their academic and career goals. Several students shared how this was their first ‘real job’ or first time living and working out-of-state and on their own.  I’ve been involved in outreach and recruitment with NRCS for many years, and to hear them share their experiences and new-found confidence is very exciting.”

Feedback from the host states from the NRCS supervisors was overwhelmingly positive.  Tafoya said many expressed how well-matched these students are to our agency in terms of their degree programs. 

“The performance evaluations the supervisors completed at the end of the internships were extremely positive regarding the student’s desire to learn, their skill set, and especially their work ethic,” said Tafoya.

Many NRCS supervisors, and other state leadership said they plan to stay in contact with the students in hopes they can encourage them to apply for the student trainee positions.

In September the students who participated in this summer’s USDA Career Experience Program shared about their internships through poster and group presentations to fellow agricultural students to encourage them to explore the program opportunities. The TAMUK’s 2018 Summer Student USDA Career Experience Internship Presentations had more than 250 in attendance including students, family, and faculty from TAMUK and different institutions, student’s supervisors, researchers and private consultants.

Tafoya was the keynote speaker at the event in Kingsville. “My message to students was to express the importance of gaining hands-on, practical work experience through an internship in order to understand the many career options in natural resource management, and equally important, the need to become more competitive at the next level that ultimately leads to permanent employment.  Similarly, it was vital to share with the group that partnerships with key universities like TAMUK helps position our agency to be successful as we continue to build our future workforce with the most qualified and the most talented students.”  

Edinburg NRCS District Conservationist, Ray Hinojosa presented two NRCS workshops to assist students on applying through the usajobs.gov website for the OneUSDA student trainee positions.

USDA Partnership Goes Beyond Career Training

Another example of USDA staff helping students involved in the USDA Career Experience program, was Texas NRCS soil scientists, John Sackett, Carlos Villarreal and Alan Stahnke, who helped train students on a multi institutional soils team for the Southern Regional Soils Judging Contest. One of the students took fifth overall, and it was her first time in a soils pit and to describe a soil, just days before the contest.

The soil scientists also stepped in to work with the TAMUK College of Agriculture’s soils judging team who had lost two of their trainers prior to the contest.  The soils judging team of Scott Cardenas, Jonah Trevino, and Juan Cortinas, received first place in the team competition and third overall in the Southern Region. This is the first time for the TAMUK soils judging team to qualify for the National Soils Competition that will be held next year. For more on this success story, visit http://nrcs.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=a07596c69da2489d82629ff96760a768.

“As an agency, we need make smarter investments in our outreach activities and broaden our traditional effort, if we want to build a future workforce that can adequately meet the needs of our rapidly changing constituency,” said Tafoya.  “I’d offer the following quote from award-winning social entrepreneur Leila Janah, because I truly believe it: ‘Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not’.”  

For more information on the TAMUK USDA Career Experience visit http://www.tamuk.edu/usdahsigrants/Career-Exp/Career-Exp.html and for applying with the “OneUSDA Internship” student trainee positions, visit www.usajobs.gov.

College Students Gain Valuable Career Experience Through USDA Partnerships, Melissa Blair, USDA-NRCS public affairs specialist (2018, December)