As they mark a decade of introducing high school students to the world of agriculture, officials with the South Carolina Commissioner’s School for Agriculture detect a pattern.
They point to a resource that shows a key reason why the one-week summer session at Clemson University is such a success. It’s really quite simple, according to Katie Black, coordinator of student recruitment for Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences, and director of the Commissioner’s School.
“It truly is the people,” Black says, when asked why the program has earned such a good reputation since its debut in 2004. “I really think the difference is the people that are engaged with this program. Just about all of our counseling staff are people who had gone through the program themselves. Our alumni want to come back and get involved, and many have donated financially.”
Three Tracks of Study
Around 275 high school juniors and seniors have participated in the Commissioner’s School, which is holding its 10th session in the summer of 2013. Hugh Weathers, South Carolina’s commissioner of agriculture since 2004, calls the program an ideal way for students to consider agriculture as a major in college and as a career.
The school, which is open to 35-40 participants each year, offers three tracks of study: Animal and Veterinary Sciences; Horticulture, Turfgrass and Agronomy; and Forestry, Wildlife and Environmental Sciences.
“Animal science tends to be the most popular,” says Black, who has been involved in the school since its beginning. “Our goal with the program is not just to hit them where they’re interested, but also to really show them what the industry has to offer and where there are truly an abundances of jobs.”
City and Country
While most students come from South Carolina, the enrollment also includes a number from out-of-state. Chris Engel came all the way from New Jersey, and not from the agricultural side of the state.
“I grew up 24 miles outside of New York City,” says Engel, who participated in the Commissioner’s School as a rising high school junior in 2005. “My dad was a stockbroker and my mother runs a ballet company in the city. But I got an itch for agriculture when I worked summer jobs on an organic dairy farm in Vermont.”
Engel returned to the state to attend college at Clemson, where he graduated in 2011 with a degree in animal agribusiness. He is now a representative with Helena Chemical in Mayesville.
“Commissioner’s School is such a unique opportunity for high school students interested in agriculture to come to a college campus for a week and interact with college professors and staff,” Engel says. “For me, it really opened up and showed this broad spectrum of agriculture as an industry.”
Heather Coleman had a similar impression after she attended the Commissioner’s School in 2006. Unlike Engel, Coleman had an agriculture background from growing up on a farm in Dillon. She knew her path led to a job in agriculture, and the school provided further confirmation.
“It gave me the opportunity to see all the majors Clemson had to offer and to connect with people like Katie (Black),” says Coleman, who now works in the USDA office in Columbia. “I met a lot of people I still talk to. It was really a good experience overall.”
In addition to the enthusiasm of the school’s staff and counselors, the program’s success can be attributed to its method of funding. It isn’t supported by state tax dollars, as similar programs in other states have done.
“They all received state funding, and many of those have gone away,” Black says. “We operate on donations and support from industry, and that is what has kept us strong.”