Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension received a nearly $500,000 grant to fund a project that will expose undergraduates at two land-grant universities to careers in Extension.

The “Illuminating Agricultural Extension and Education Career Opportunities For STEM and Liberal Arts Undergraduate Students” program is a result of a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Rick Rudd, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and community viability chair director, is the principal investigator along with co-principal investigators Melissa Chase, consumer food safety program manager in the Department of Food Science and Technology, and Renee Boyer, head of the Department of Food Science and Technology, professor, and Extension specialist.

According to Rudd, the United States faces historical shortages of agriculture Extension agents and teachers. With fewer undergraduates exposed to these career opportunities, this shortage could magnify, he said.

“That is one of the reasons we started this project – to address this shortage and to attract students who may not have heard of these careers before, or, may not know much about what a career in Extension and agricultural education looks like,” Rudd said.

A total of 40 undergraduate students from Virginia Tech and Tennessee State University, broken into four cohorts of 10, will carry out this program over the next five years. They will focus on food safety, health, and food preservation to address food insecurity in Appalachia and Senegal, a region and a country that exist thousands of miles apart yet share in similar struggles.

The program, scheduled to start in January 2022, will bring Tennessee State students to Virginia Tech’s campus where they will be trained with their Virginia Tech counterparts in food safety and preservation by extension faculty, including Chase and Boyer.

During this weeklong workshop, they will learn about cultural competence, problem-solving, communication, conflict resolution, and decision-making, all of which are critical skills in Extension professions, Rudd said. In addition, students will receive lessons in French and on the history and culture of Senegal in preparation for a trip to the West African country with which Virginia Tech has shared a longstanding partnership.

Next spring, students will continue to train with their Extension mentors in both Virginia and Tennessee to learn more about extension and its programming. The experience culminates in the summer when the students embark on a two-week trip to Senegal. There, they will deliver extension programming to villagers in rural communities in Senegal and South Sudan.

“I’ve been to Senegal many times, and I see a lot of people struggling with what they call the ‘hungry season,’ when gardens are not producing,” Rudd said. “Food preservation is just one area that we can help them deal with food insecurity. Also, from an entrepreneurial standpoint, there are a lot of women in these areas who are very interested in working with us to learn how to preserve mangos or tomatoes and to be able to sell them in the open market.”

Reflecting on Senegal’s similarities with Appalachia, Rudd cited Extension’s top-requested publication in the state: a hot-water-bath-canning guide.

The Illuminate group will be joined in Senegal by students and faculty from Bombay University, or, Mumbai University, located in India. The institution is trying to launch its own form of Extension programming.

“We are hopeful that Bombay University will benefit from this experience and that they will be able to get a jumpstart on their new extension programming,” Rudd said. “Collaboration, establishing partnerships, connecting communities, and improving lives are the cornerstones of this program, and I am excited about its possible outcomes. We are hopeful that these students transition from this experience inspired, empowered, and prepared to explore careers in extension.”  

Recruitment of the first cohort of students will begin this fall.

For more information about the program or to inquire about participating, contact Rudd at

Written by Mary Hardbarger


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