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No Substitute for Experience

Outstanding teachers in our college will tell you that there are many ways to reach the eager minds in our classrooms. An illuminating lecture, a probing question or a well-designed experiment all can spark our students’ intellect and ambition. But nothing generates a more powerful or lasting response than firsthand experience.

I was reminded of that last summer, when I led 12 CALS students on a two-week travel course to Texcoco, Mexico. Our primary destination was the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the world’s premier research laboratory for the improvement of corn and wheat (you can learn more about it on page 26). While the students learned a great deal about the science of breeding crop plants, they also experienced what life is like for corn and grain farmers in Mexico. They saw for themselves how differences in climate, soil quality, technology and socioeconomic conditions pose serious challenges for farmers in other parts of the world. Because of that experience, those students came back understanding more not only about the work of CIMMYT’s scientists, but also about the reality in which they work.

In CALS, we are in a unique position to provide these transformative experiences for our students. Agriculture is by its nature a global business. Food traverses the world, and so too does the scientific effort to grow it more efficiently and sustainably. Our scientists collaborate with partners around the world to improve plant and animal traits, fight hunger and disease, conserve natural resources and create new knowledge. At the same time, they open doors for our students to learn about and contribute to those efforts.

It’s this integration of teaching, research and global experience that makes a CALS education so powerful. Today, CALS students study and perform research virtually everywhere on the planet, from a cornfield in Mexico to a health clinic in Uganda to a forest in China. Many of those students will return inspired to work on global issues. But as we hear from employers frequently, a broad worldview is no longer a luxury for someone aspiring to build a career in the agricultural and life sciences—it’s a necessary tool for navigating in an increasingly interconnected global economy.