‘Life-changing’ Agricultural Technology Program prepares students for careers
“The Agricultural Technology Program gives people a new perspective on life. If you’re a hard worker, the program will change your life,” said Khalil McKenzie, a student in the program.
Khalil McKenzie stood behind the greenhouses near the Hahn Horticulture Garden, weighing out his options. The gravel path couldn’t follow a standard centered route because of the existing landscaping.
He’d seen this before at work – when critical thinking skills are needed to adapt to solve a problem. McKenzie knew that the reference point his Agricultural Technology classmates should use, should be centered on the inside edges of the garden instead.
These students learn by doing, by working through problems together to find the optimal solutions.
“The Agricultural Technology Program gives people a new perspective on life. If you’re a hard worker, the program will change your life,” said McKenzie of Fishersville, Virginia, a student ambassador for the program.
This is the experience that people like Cynthia Johnson want to preserve.
“I live in a rural area surrounded by small farms, something I’ve always been interested in,” Johnson said. “I wanted to have a scholarship and have an impact on the lives of these future farmers. I want to give them a chance to preserve their way of life.”
Johnson, a photographer by trade who worked for Time Magazine and was the personal photographer for several United States presidents, started the scholarship several years ago for students from Madison and Rappahannock counties who come from farm families. The scholarship is a full ride and is usually, but not always, awarded to Agricultural Technology Program students.
Robert Mills, the 2017 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year, a former member of Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors, the chair of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean's Advisory Council, and an Agricultural Technology Program graduate, knows the impact of the program firsthand.
“As a graduate and somebody that works in the agricultural industry, this program is a hit for employees and employers alike. This program has constantly put out graduates that are employed the second they leave campus,” Mills said. “Here’s a person like myself that has had three careers, and I was prepared for all of them.”
The first of its kind
The Agricultural Technology Program started as – and remains – the only associate's degree program at Virginia Tech. During the two years in the program, students experience concentrated and specialized courses that prepare them for their chosen careers.
As part of the program, all Agricultural Technology students are required to take an occupational internship, an experience that can change the career path of students. Work experience is gained through an internship normally completed between the first and second year of classes. Students choose a job that suits their interests and work for a minimum of 10 weeks and 400 hours. This opportunity provides valuable work experience that enhances a resume and helps students solidify career choices.
A couple of years ago, Mills had a first-year student in the program do an internship program with him.
“He had no prior experience with livestock – he had never been on a tractor in his life,” Mills said. “I showed him how to turn the key to crank the tractor. At the end of the internship, this young man was running all the equipment that we had. He was working cattle, giving shots, and involved in every aspect of our operation. I trusted him so much that I turned him loose to just do the jobs.
“He now has a farm operation of his own because of his experiences in Ag Tech,” Mills continued. “That’s special to me. As someone who hired an intern, I saw this young man go from basically not knowing anything about the industry to having his own part of the industry.”
These experiences aren’t just reserved for recent high school graduates.
Jeffrey Estienne, a 2020 graduate of the Applied Agricultural Management option and the 2020 Agricultural Technology Outstanding Senior, served four years in the United States Marine Corps and worked at the Virginia Tech Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center before entering the program. He excelled academically with dean's list recognition while serving the university and his community during his time as a student.
Applied experiences drive education
The Agricultural Technology Program takes traditional topics and adds hands-on labs. Students go outside the classroom to install a landscape they designed, conduct soil tests, and plant tissue analyses, calibrate sprayers, artificially inseminate cattle, or analyze a business enterprise.
For his lab every Wednesday, McKenzie heads out to local farms and gardens for his pest management class – far away from the traditional four-walled world. He and all of the other students in the course can see how pests, such as the squash beetle, can damage gardens or how armyworms damage lawns.
“When I graduate, I plan to start my own landscaping business and see where it goes from there,” McKenzie said. “Because of Ag Tech, I will have the skills and knowledge to make a successful business.”
With such a practical education, graduates fulfill the industry demand of training beyond the high school level. Each of the faculty members in Agricultural Technology has industry experience and passes on their working knowledge to better prepare students.
“The faculty and staff in the program do an incredible job,” Mills said. “They prepare these young people to go out into the workforce. I'm very proud of the students that they're putting out into the industry.”