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Alum Proves Every Day that Diversity Programs Grow Agriculture's Next-Gen Leaders

Posted by Scott Elliott, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Initiatives Food and Nutrition Farming
Sep 08, 2016
Victoria LeBeaux
Victoria LeBeaux, national program leader with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Photo by Carlos Harris

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to career development and, according to one of the nation’s new leaders in agriculture, the course one steers toward a profession in agriculture can be as varied and diverse as the population itself.

“I’m not a big fan of the term ‘pipeline’ because it implies that there is only one way in and only one direction you can go,” said Dr. Victoria LeBeaux, a national program leader (NPL) with USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).  “If that were true I certainly wouldn’t be here, since I had no intention of studying agriculture.”

As an undergraduate, she studied economics with the goal of working in international development. Prior to starting her doctorate in sustainable agriculture, LeBeaux lived in rural areas in France and Austria and volunteered in Mexico.  Iowa State University ultimately recruited her to complete doctoral training in a three-year NIFA-funded National Needs Fellowship (NNF) program.

NNF trains students for masters and doctoral degrees. In some cases it also provides additional post-doctoral training for the Fellows.  For LeBeaux, that additional training meant a six-month stint in Guatemala where she examined how technical assistance providers helped enhance regional food security by advancing sustainable agriculture practices.

LeBeaux returned to NIFA in 2014 after completing her Ph.D. and subsequent postdoctoral studies, and became an NPL in NIFA’s Division of Community and Education.  In that role she manages about $10 million in federal funding that supports secondary and postsecondary research, education and extension in the food, agricultural, and human sciences. These programs include the Educational Literacy Initiative’s Research and Extension for Undergraduates (REEU) fellowships program.  REEU provides experiential learning opportunities for underrepresented and first-generation college students. In addition, she uses her scientific training to represent NIFA in federal initiatives like USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, which helps coordinate USDA programs to strengthen local and regional food networks nationwide.

“I sincerely appreciate the opportunities provided though the NNF program,” she said.  “As with many other young people, pursuing doctoral education was not on my radar and would not have been possible had I not had the financial support provided by the grant.  I think we need to create a diverse array of pathways to link young people to careers in agriculture and to show them that whatever they are interested in, there are opportunities in agriculture.”

NIFA programs offer grants for K-12 schools and community colleges, such as The Secondary Education, Two-Year Postsecondary Education, and Agriculture in the K-12 Classroom Challenge Grants (SPECA) program; funding for undergraduate and masters level education such as the Higher Education Challenge Grants program and the Multicultural Scholars Program (MSP); and support for doctoral studies is provided by the NNF Fellowship and the Education and Literacy Initiative.

NNF supports 45 new masters and doctoral students each year, while MSP supports 35 undergrads.

Beyond grants, there are many other ways people can benefit from NIFA. For example, educators can access free curriculum from AITC through its Curriculum Matrix. NIFA is also the home of 4-H National Headquarters that supports the positive youth leadership development. NIFA is also a key partner with the Cooperative Extension Service, which operates offices across the country to provide community education in agriculture, health, nutrition, personal finances, and more.

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.