The demand for college graduates with agriculture degrees remains high across the country, and students enrolling in the state’s agricultural colleges are taking note. Applications to the agriculture and life sciences programs at Virginia Tech and Virginia State University (VSU) have increased by 10 to 15 percent annually for the past several years.
“We’re the only college within the university that has continued to see an increase, so we’re excited,” says Dr. Susan Sumner, associate dean and director of academic programs in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Opportunity is the payoff for students who earn agricultural degrees, says Dr. Jewel Hairston, dean of VSU’s College of Agriculture.
“Agriculture offers exciting opportunities in today’s world,” Dr. Hairston says. “Whether students are passionate about the environment and water resources or interested in health and nutrition, degrees in agriculture can open doors.”
A U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA) study notes that more than 54,000 jobs are created annually for individuals with baccalaureate or higher degrees in food, renewable energy, environmental specialties and other agriculture related fields. Nationwide, enrollment in agriculture colleges and departments rose by 28 percent from 2004 to 2013, according to the USDA Food and Agriculture Education Information System.
Sumner says students entering Virginia Tech’s agriculture programs are interested in environmental issues, ranging from climate change to water resources, as well as food science and agribusiness. Students are also attracted to the hands-on learning aspect that agricultural programs offer. Laboratory classes and experiential learning opportunities hold students’ interest, and the opportunity that agricultural programs provide to work outside a traditional office environment is also a big draw.
Hairston says agricultural fields also allow young people to enter careers that have an impact on the wider population.
“There’s an entrepreneurial spirit in agriculture and students are drawn to that,” she says. “This generation wants to make a difference and they realize they can do that by using their degrees in self-run operations or by working with companies involved in agriculture.”
Filling A Void
Approximately 4,000 new students graduate each year from the nation’s accredited veterinary medicine colleges, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. That figure is up from about 2,500 in 2010. However, even with that increase, there’s still a shortage in the areas of large animal and food animal veterinarians.
Like other students pursuing agriculture degrees, Keagan Clevenger sees an opportunity. Clevenger, a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, hopes to enter the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in 2015.
He was also drawn to Virginia Tech’s on-site farm facility and the opportunities the college provides to volunteer and work in his field. The courses have taught him animal handling and management skills, and he’s gained work experience at the Virginia Tech Meat Science Center and the Beef Cattle Center, which includes a 300-head cow/calf operation.
“Those experiences have provided me with skills at a high level,” Clevenger says. “Virginia Tech really helps prepare students for veterinary school.”
Clevenger’s interest in working with animals started at a young age.
“I had interactions with large animal veterinarians on our own farm, and they were role models for me. Also, working with individuals in the agriculture industry and the people I’ve met through shows and contests hosted by the Virginia Cooperative Extension – all those experiences have been major drivers for me in choosing this path.”