New Washington State University Program Hopes to Encourage Careers in Ag

Tianna DuPont, WSU Extension tree fruit specialist, helps students with an experiment during their fall Spark tour of the WSU Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, WA. (Photo credit: WSU)

Washington State University’s (WSU) Spark program is igniting interest in careers in agriculture among high school and minority students who grow up in agriculture families.

In partnership with Stemlit Growers, the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, and the WSU Wenatchee Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, WSU started Spark with a fall event in Wenatchee, WA.

“We wanted to show them that they can use knowledge they’ve gained growing up to have an exciting and lucrative career,” said Kari Sampson, assistant director of recruitment and retention in WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS). “We wanted to increase their interest and change their perception of agriculture.

“And the feedback we got showed we did just that,” she said. “We even heard from one young woman who is applying to WSU based purely on what she learned at a Spark tour. It’s exciting to have that kind of direct impact.”

High school students from around the region toured Stemlit, interacted with ag professionals – including product managers, business professionals, human resource representatives, and horticulturists – connected with WSU ag students and met with WSU research and Extension groups to learn about ag science and opportunities in industry and academia.

“CAHNRS academic programs visited several companies and farms around north-central Washington last year, and a common theme was they can’t find enough people to apply for vacant jobs,” Sampson said. “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for every person who graduates with a degree in ag, there are three to four jobs available.”

The students rotated through four WSU labs that specialize in genetics, plant pathology, entomology, and soil research. While working with the scientists, participants competed for a scholarship redeemable when they attend WSU and pursue an ag-related major.

WSU graduate research assistant Paco Gonzalez-Tapia, who recently earned a bachelor’s degree from WSU, said he wished the program existed when he was in high school.

“Spark can serve as a compass for prospective students, showing them a path to a career that they never would have considered,” said Gonzalez-Tapia, who spoke to students about his WSU experience and answered questions at the Spark tour.

Zed Deenik, a program director at Chelan High School, brought a small group of students and plans to bring more to future events.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “But it was great for students to see options they didn’t know about. And it’s great that WSU was willing to take the time to show them these choices exist.”

“The Spark program provides a wonderful opportunity to link up with area high schoolers and share with them the opportunities to work in agriculture,” said Jim McFerson, director of the WSU Wenatchee center.

“And who knows,” he said. “Thanks to the Spark program, some of these students may eventually work at our center, or enroll at WSU, or find great jobs in ag in our area. Or all of the above.”

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