Diversity Grows Organically at Mizzou

Marjorie Malpiede / January 11, 2019

How the school’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources nurtures equity

The University of Missouri admitted its first non-white student in 1950, beginning a difficult journey toward equity and inclusion that continues today, as the protests of 2016 remind us. But one program within the school has made promising gains in this area by virtue of its purpose: addressing world hunger.

International development is a discipline within the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR). It brings together domestic and foreign students of all races and cultures toward strengthening communities around the world. The college has become one of the leading institutions in the country for applying multi-disciplinary research to help some of the poorest places on earth. It is also an example of how diversity can be achieved from goals and activities that transcend group boundaries.

Ken Schneeberger is an agricultural economist who is now the Director of International Programs at the college. He has been at CAFNR for nearly 50 years in various positions including researcher, professor, and administrator. His current job is to engage foreign students and governments in learning and transferring the skills that improve their country’s economy and governance.

“I have seen this campus grow and think more broadly, developing deep national and international relationships,” he said. Schneeberger cites examples that date back to the school’s early work in establishing research capacity in Kenya; later providing technical assistance in Korea and Vietnam and more recently, working with farmers in the Ukraine to create new markets from their traditional land tenure system.

A large part of the work involves farming and food distribution but, according to Schneeberger, the people who get involved in international development are in it to make things better, whether it be trade, equity or health. Students at CAFNR are diverse in culture and academic focus—be it forestry, food safety, climate resistance, or genetic engineering. The school is actively recruiting students from a priority list of countries that includes China, Eastern Europe, Africa, India, and Vietnam.

In any given year, CAFNR will have about 300 international students, the largest population within one college on the Columbia campus. Schneeberger says that the college works to help international students feel more included.
One example is the “Africa Hub” organized by faculty of African descent and led by African students who have a regular set of activities that they drive but invite the rest of the international development community to take part in.

“It is important that these students feel recognized and supported, but not in a way that keeps them apart from other members of the community,” he said.

Maria Rodriguez-Alcalá agrees. An agricultural economist with a Ph.D in Rural Sociology, Rodriguez-Alcalá came to MU from her native county, Paraguay, and understands first-hand what it’s like to be an international student at an American University.

“For international students to feel like they belong here they need more ‘bridging’ with American students, not more ‘clustering’ among their own groups,” she said.

Rodriguez-Alcalá is the recently-retired Executive Director of the Deaton Institute for University Leadership in International Development, a program strongly supported by CAFNR. Named after another agricultural economist and MU Chancellor Emeritus, Brady Deaton, the Deaton Institute supports inter-disciplinary research and its application on food security to address extreme poverty around the world.

“Bridging” is what the Deaton Institute is all about.

“We bridge what the researchers at the college are doing with the needs of global communities,” Rodriguez-Alcalá said. “We aren’t inventing new things every day; we are taking what we know works and putting it together.”
Rather than “feeding the world,” the Institute takes more of a “teach-the-people-to-fish” approach to food security, which involves a wide range of professions—from plant science to social science —the intersection of which is a key function of the Institute. An important by-product of this work has been the natural coming together of disparate people by virtue of a common purpose. A good example lies in the Deaton Scholars program.

If the Institute is a model for interdisciplinary collaboration, then the Deaton Scholars are its personification. The mentoring initiative within the Institute pairs students from different majors, racial backgrounds, ages and nationalities to work on research projects with specific end goals. The program gives students the opportunity to collaborate with others whom they likely would not have on their own. Rodriguez-Alcalá says the results have been invigorating.

“I have never seen a program that brings together such a diverse group of people where diversity is never once discussed,” she said.

Working together involves abandoning preconceived notions about other groups. Rodriguez-Alcalá points to one pairing between a Nigerian woman and a woman from rural United States. The assumption, on the part of the Nigerian, was that the American was more advantaged and therefore, had more to learn from her about poverty and hardship. But the reality was the American student had been in foster care, was abused and struggled with poverty. Imparting her experiences became a surprisingly enriching lesson for both women who formed a strong bond.

The pairings have produced high-impact outcomes which the Institute credits, in large part, to the relationships that have formed among students who share a passion—in this case, the elimination of poverty. Rodriguez-Alcalá believes it can be applied to anything.

“It’s a model,” she said. “You identify a common interest that people are passionate about, bring them together, and that’s where the magic happens.”