CLEMSON — As Clemson University celebrated a century of Agricultural Education this year, the current faculty reflected on the anniversary not only as a milestone but also as a reminder of the program’s impact.
And that impact doesn’t just extend to their own students at Clemson but is felt exponentially through future generations across the state and nation who grow up involved in agriculture.
“If you talk to our students and ask them who was their mentor in high school or what helped them through a troubling time in their life, many are going to say it was my ag teacher or it was my involvement in my FFA program in high school that built a family for me,” said Catherine DiBenedetto, assistant professor in Clemson’s Agricultural Sciences Department. “Ag serves a diverse population of students, and it really becomes their passion because they get a chance to get involved in something they’ve never experienced before.”
Since its inception in 1917 to January 2018, Clemson’s Agricultural Education program has graduated more than 1,800 undergraduates and 500 graduate students. Many of the graduates were on hand for the centennial celebration in March at Clemson’s Madren Center ballroom, as more than 225 supporters of the program gathered to highlight its accomplishments.
“We were fortunate to have so many supporters reply that we filled the Madren Center’s ballroom, and those guests ranged from individuals in their 90s all the way down to undergraduates,” said Phil Fravel, professor of Agricultural Education. “When we began planning the event, I quickly realized there were certain supporters I knew would be there who are very, very proud of their Ag Ed background and the program’s history. But to have reached the large ballroom’s capacity was overwhelming.”
“I was especially taken by the presence of Mrs. Sybil Martin Todd, whose father, James Rutledge Martin, was a member of the first graduating class of Ag Ed graduates in 1918,” Fravel added.
The creation of the Agricultural Education program at Clemson — then Clemson College — took place nearly simultaneously with South Carolina’s acceptance of the provisions of the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which promoted vocational education in agriculture, trades and industry, and homemaking, and provided federal funds for that purpose.
The legislation sought to address the dilemma of trained agriculture teachers nationwide, and the Division of Agricultural Education teacher-training program at Clemson was created and opened its doors in the fall of 1917 with 10 students.
And that legacy was still evident at the centennial event in March, as Ms. Verd Cunningham of Columbia, represented the family of Professor Verd Peterson, the first Agricultural Education professor at Clemson College who also served for nearly 30 years as South Carolina’s state supervisor for Agricultural Education. She reflected on her grandfather’s love of agriculture and his accomplishments not only as an administrator but as a loving family man.
At the celebration, Sen. Daniel Verdin of Laurens County and Sen. Thomas Alexander of Oconee County introduced a concurrent resolution unanimously approved by the South Carolina Senate and House recognizing the numerous accomplishments of the Clemson University Agricultural Education program over the past 100 years.
Initially a two-year program, the teacher education curriculum converted to a four-year degree in 1928, and the program has continued to evolve as both agriculture and education in the U.S. have evolved, as well. Today, students in the Agricultural Education major have a wide variety of technical interests including animal agriculture, science, plant agriculture, agricultural mechanics, agribusiness and natural resources. Within the degree, students also can choose from two emphasis areas to meet their career goals: teaching or leadership.
“It’s changed since I came in 2001,” Fravel said. “I think it’s preparation for careers in agriculture — in the classroom and beyond. It’s not a jack of all trades, but our curriculum is a kind of a survey of a lot of areas of business, horticulture and animal science, and certainly the psychology of teaching and working with people. So, I think it’s a well-rounded degree, and it’s not necessarily just for teaching. Many of our students want to go back to their home farm or business choose Ag Ed as a degree, too. So, it seems to serve the state well.”
Despite the program’s staying power, however, DiBenedetto said the need to continue to recruit Agricultural Education students is crucial — not just for its own overall health, but because of a major supply-and-demand deficit in the United States for agricultural educators.
“We can’t provide the number of Ag Ed teachers that we need nationwide, let alone even here in South Carolina,” DiBenedetto said. “So, we need to figure out ways to try to increase those numbers through recruitment — and retention, for that matter, to be able to retain some of the younger teachers that get out there and need the support with some of the professional development that we offer for them.”
And as the program has adapted to meet the changing needs of agriculture, it has also become more diverse — both in terms of students and faculty members. When DiBenedetto came to Clemson in 2015, she became the first female Agricultural Education faculty member in the program’s history.
Along with added diversity, there has also been an increased need for a more diverse skill set for educators as technology has become a larger part of agriculture and those teachers must develop the professionals who will sustain South Carolina’s agriculture industry, which is worth $3 billion annually, between crops and livestock, to the state and is comprised of about 25,000 farms.
“There are so many connections to career preparedness and all the new innovations that are coming about in agriculture,” DiBenedetto said. “And there are connections to the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — components that the Agricultural Education curriculum has the opportunity to help build within those students.”
On an even more basic level, DiBenedetto said agricultural educators were important to the wellbeing of students and other citizens in helping them understand where their food comes from.
“My goal in our Ag Ed Orientation course is for each of those students, as an ag educator, to leave and be able to have an elevator speech in a grocery store that they could talk to somebody about if they are concerned about buying a product because of a label, GMOs, organic or antibiotic free,” she said. “Do they really understand what that means? Nine times out of 10, the average consumer does not, but our Ag Ed students are passionate about discussing those misconceptions. If my students can feel confident to speak up and just have that conversation with a typical consumer in a grocery store and educate them, then I think that’s what our role in agricultural education is, as well.”
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