- Author: Mariana Gonzalez Castro
- Contact: Stacey Amparano
On Monday, February 17th, I flew from the San Diego airport to Washington D.C. to attend a rare opportunity. I was one of 20 undergraduate students selected to attend the 96th Annual USDA's Agricultural Outlook Forum Future Leaders in Agriculture Program. I participated in USDA planned activities on February 18-19th and attended USDA's Agricultural Outlook Forum on February 20-21st, in Arlington, Virginia.
On the first two days of this event, I was able to tour USDA Headquarters and received a first-hand perspective about the structures of various USDA agencies, including the National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS) and Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS). I met with many USDA officials, including one of the regional directors of NASS and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. I gained an understanding of how national public policy in agriculture functions by visiting the Russell Senate Office Building and talking with senators' committee members. Since many students, including myself, were visiting Washington D.C. for the first time, the Future Leaders in Agriculture Program scheduled a tour of Washington's greatest landmarks and memorials.
On Thursday and Friday, the days the forum event took place, multiple sessions occurred concurrently with speakers giving presentations on agricultural issues and using innovation as the key to improve and increase global food production. Of the sessions I personally attended, some of the topics discussed were creating more infrastructure in rural communities, adopting precision agriculture, and improving data research methods in public agricultural research. I also attended plenary panels that would discuss challenges in agriculture and rural communities and using innovation as a potential solution. Secretary Perdue would also host fireside chats in which the Secretaries of Agriculture of Argentina, Canada, and Mexico were present to discuss similar topics and issues. Throughout these two days I networked with many USDA agency representatives in a Networking Exhibition Hall. As a result, I received many career opportunities that I intend to apply to.
This trip has opened my eyes to three fundamental realizations.
#1: I arrived in Washington D.C. insecure. I did not have a strong background in agriculture. All I had was my versatility, a couple of college credits, and my top-notched brain. My upbringing in a low-income, rural community left me with a fixed mindset about myself and my future. I was hesitant to get out of my comfort zone and leave the Imperial Valley to pursue my career in mathematics. However, throughout the week I learned so much about public policy in agriculture as well as USDA's history, structure, and services. I explored Washington D.C. and fell in love with the area. I found myself imagining a life there. The thought of this left me surprised, yet excited of the prospect of building myself a future in Washington D.C.
#2: I grew up being told that, as a Hispanic, I am part of a minority group. However, I never felt like I was a minority. I grew up in an area where most of the population is Hispanic. So, imagine my surprise when I find myself being one the very few Hispanic students in this program. Out of 30 selected students, I was one of only 4 students that were Hispanic. I did the math. That is, only 14% of this group of students were Hispanic. Now, don't misunderstand me, every student of my cohort is a minority, one way or another. However, the reason I point this detail out is because of what I felt as a result. There truly is a difference between being told that one is a minority and witnessing that firsthand. This shift in my environment shocked me to my core and I realized that we need more representation in leadership. We have far more representation in leadership compared to 50 years ago, but there is still much to be done and I want to be more involved with continuing to implement diversity inclusion. After all, I am a young Hispanic female STEM major-the ultimate minority. I represent my generation and our nation's future. This fact leads me to my third and final realization.
#3: I got to meet several of the brightest minds of my generation. I bonded with all my fellow colleagues, learned of their stories, shared my story, and had stimulating discussions on several issues in agriculture. Meeting them changed my life because not only did I learn so much about agricultural issues and potential solutions, but they encouraged me to be the best me I can be. In other words, they inspired me. We were no longer students from various universities and disciplines selected to attend an annual agricultural forum. We became a unified cohort that will continue to support each other for years to come. Our brilliant minds and shared passion for agriculture leaves me hopeful of our nation's future.
I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is for students like me to seek out opportunities in the Imperial Valley. The week I spent with USDA helped me realize just how impactful the Imperial Valley is in agriculture. Our community plays a crucial role in helping feed the world and I did not realize this until my last couple of years in college when I was first introduced to USDA. The agriculture education outreach that has been done must continue in the younger generations because we do make an immense impact.
I returned home with self-confidence, new ideas, and an eagerness to continue what I started in Washington D.C. This event finished shaping my mind on the idea of pursuing a career in agriculture. Any doubts I had before were completely erased. I now know that the career I want to pursue is one with USDA.