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At Penn State, faculty and students agree:
Educational opportunities broader and better than ever

If animal agriculture at Penn State is of interest to you, here are some of the folks who will be happy to meet you. Bottom row, left to right: Dr. Chad Dechow, Dr. Troy Ott, Dr. Kevin Harvatine. Middle, same order: Dr. Lisa Holden, Dr. Joy Pate, Dr. Ann Macrina. Top: Dr. Alex Hristov, Jana Peters, Dale Olver.

By DIETER KRIEG
Farmshine Editor

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- "We have the top undergraduate ag program in the country," declared a proud Penn Stater last fall.

It was not at all a selfish boast.

School pride was clearly showing but the words that followed acknowledged that ag schools across the country are doing a good job and they're all getting better, Penn State included.

The collaboration and networking that has taken place between ag colleges, businesses and communities has made programs stronger everywhere and that's where today's school pride is actually rooted. "It makes everybody better," the veteran educator affirmed.

While students still have great pride in their own school, they "graduate" rather quickly from any notion that other schools are inferior. Today's ag curriculums routinely venture off campus to include farming operations, ag businesses and even other campuses. A prime example is the Dairy Challenge program through which students from different schools work as teams visiting and evaluating dairy farms. A regional as well as national program, the contests brings students together from across the country. The net result fosters better understanding and unity to address challenges faced by modern agriculture.

Penn State students, faculty and staff are proud of the changes that have been implemented.

Some impressive numbers support the pride. Fifteen years ago, the University had 140 students majoring in animal sciences. Today, that number is approaching 400.

The broader approach to learning, including practical, hands-on, real-life experiences has both students and faculty excited. "it's a lot more hands-on and there's a lot more collaboration with farms. It's kind of a living classroom," commented Dale Olver, whose duties include being co-advisor to the perennially nationally recognized Penn State Dairy Science Club. For the record, the Club has been voted No. 1 in the nation six out of the past seven years.

Eighty members strong, the Penn State Dairy Science Club has the "muscle" to move. Members are passionate and proud, admittedly driven to hold on to their top ranking.

Olver, along with co-advisor Dr. Chad Dechow, take their positions as club advisors seriously but modestly decline taking credit. "We get out of the way and let the students drive the program," Olver noted with a hint of pride riding on his smile.

"Public service and youth education aspects have increased a lot," Olver affirmed. "Club members are passionate and involved and willing to change with the times," he added. The result is greater outreach to the community, whether it be through events such as the Osteochallenge and food banks or on social websites. It's a two-way street as the outreach programs offer a broader view into life for the students as well as those being contacted.

To be sure, education still takes place in the traditional classroom. It has not and cannot be replaced. But there's a lot of dovetailing going on.

Students and faculty alike describe the curriculum as "living and breathing" and 21st Century educational opportunities as "dynamic." Business courses, including negotiating skills, as well as precision technologies and advanced genetics are all part of the efforts to prepare students for their future careers.

One of those students is Isaac Haagen, a junior from Howard, Centre County, has already decided that he'll be going to grad school after earning his bachelor's degree. He's highly interested in dairy cattle genetics and passionate about learning all he can.

The young man, who hails from a 40-cow Registered Holstein farm located just 18 miles east of University Park / State College, has felt close to Penn State for virtually his whole life. Part of the reason is the close proximity; but first and foremost are the relationships that were established even before he became a student. "I've known the faculty here since my 4-H days," Isaac said appreciatively. They showed interest in what I was doing and that's really what drew me here. That type of support is what you really need going through college. They (the faculty) put a lot of effort into helping students be successful."

Hannah Bachman also had a practical reason for choosing Penn State. "I'm from a Penn State family," she grinned. "My mother, father and two older siblings all went here. "They all told of what Penn State has to offer. It has it all!"

"I was a bit nervous at first," Hannah revealed. "But once I arrived at the ag college, it didn't seem large at all. For generations, the consensus among students is that it feels more like a large family since the faculty makes a real effort to make everyone feel welcome. Dairy Science Club activities enhance that feeling.

Another connection students have to "home life" is Penn State's dairy farm. With approximately 250 cows in the milking herd and as many head of young stock, there's plenty to get involved with. And since most of the animals and its management are tied to research, it's all the more interesting. For more intense research, there's a 60-cow tie-stall barn.

Like Hannah and Isaac, Chad Horst of Newmanstown, Lebanon County, is among those with a strong farm background, “I chose Penn State because of their strong dairy science club and dairy judging team. We have one of the largest dairy science clubs and always are competitive at national contests,” he explained. “Also, meeting so many dairy industry professionals that are Penn State alumni makes me proud to be a student here.”

Chad is a junior majoring in animal sciences. He was on the dairy judging team that competed at World Dairy Expo this past fall. Also, he served as sale chair for the 2013 Nittany Lion Fall Classic held here at Penn State. “I hope to be on the Penn State Dairy Challenge team next spring,” the young man revealed. “This summer I will be interning with ABS as the progeny promotion intern in Wisconsin.”

Decades ago, it was the young men who by far outnumbered the young women in ag programs. Not so these days. Seventy percent of the students are female.

Another dramatic change from years ago is the number of students enrolled in animal sciences who are from urban and suburban homes. Roughly three-quarters of the ag students at Penn State do not have a farm background.

These days it makes no difference. Everyone understands the importance of getting to know each other and where he or she comes from. "We want to have the kids. The kids are our ambassadors," said Dr. Terry Etherton, who has headed the Department of Animal Sciences since 1998. Honored as a Distinguished Professor of Animal Nutrition in 1996, Dr. Etherton has been teaching at Penn State since the late 1970s.

“I believe powerfully in team-based, out of the classroom learning experiences,” he affirmed. “We are very fortunate to have a great team of people. They’re the ones who do it all.”

The net result is building a “brand name” that is recognized and respected world-wide. That, in turn, helps to build interest, enthusiasm, friendships and school pride. “A lot of students have a high passion for our program,” Dr. Etherion observed. “New kids recognize the legacy.”

International experiences have long been a part of the Penn State Dairy Science Club portfolio, with annual trips taken even to distant places such as New Zealand. Also available to students these days are study abroad programs. For example, Penn State hasan agreement with the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where Penn State students can spend their senior year and at the same time start vet school. Their first year at Glasgow simultaneously counts as the fourth year at Penn State.

The bottom line for students is that their college experience can be just about as varied as they’d like to have it. Opportunities abound. Penn State’s animal science faculty is like family, friendly, supportive, guiding and always there. Students are encouraged to take advantage of very opportunity that’s offered. That’s how students soon recognize the Department as their home away from home.

This coming Monday, April 14, Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences will host an open house for prospective students. It will be an excellent opportunity for you to learn more. You may register on line at agsci.psu.edu/futurestudents. Walk-ins to the event are welcome. Activities begin at 7:30 a.m. in Heritage Hall of the Hetzel Union Building (HUB) and continue until 5 p.m. Plenty of personal attention is promised by students, faculty and staff.