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The VP Promise —Transformative experiences for CALS students

Opportunity is a hallmark of a great land-grant university and of a UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences education. So much of that opportunity awaits outside the classroom: study abroad, a semester in politics in Tallahassee or Washington, D.C., business internships, undergraduate research in a lab or the field and leadership development conferences, to name a few.  Students almost uniformly say that learning beyond the classroom was a transformative experience in their lives that led to new insights and often different career objectives. Alumni indicate that such an experience was a key factor in their future direction and success. 

Yet many students do not take advantage of these opportunities, and that suggests unequal access to them. When asked why they don’t pursue opportunities beyond the classroom, students usually say they have other obligations, especially during the summer when many internships take place.  They need to work throughout the year to help pay tuition, or they may simply have to go back to the farm to assist the family during the summer. Most of the time it simply comes down to not having the financial wherewithal to afford unpaid work and experience. 

For example, a student named Jennifer had an interest in agricultural policy at the federal level.  She was offered a position in the office of a member of Congress from Florida working directly with the member’s agricultural liaison. However, even with sharing an apartment with several other women, having no car, and living on a shoestring budget, she was still not able to afford the high cost of D.C. living. She stayed home instead and worked the summer job she’d had for the last several years, which paid well but had no relation to her future plans.

This is personal to me. I was a freshman at the University of Maryland and worked summers and during the year to help with living expenses. The Maryland Turfgrass Association provided me $500 to allow me to intern at a golf course for a summer. Although I never ended up as a golf course superintendent as I’d planned then, this modest gesture of support encouraged me to study in a college of agriculture and put me on the path to where I am today.

One of the most important things we can offer to this generation of students is support. That’s why Dean Turner and I have created the Vice President’s Promise. It’s a pledge that CALS undergraduate students who want to learn beyond the classroom will never be limited by their finances or a lack of applied experience options. The VP Promise is an overarching initiative to increase awareness and support of existing real-world opportunities available to students enrolled in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. The VP Promise will increase the funding available to support undergraduate student study abroad, leadership programs, internships, symposiums and other co-curricular projects. We don’t want students like Jennifer to feel they have to choose between paying the bills or gaining a life-changing experience such as interning in the nation’s capital. 

The VP Promise aims to remove the financial barrier to pursuing beyond-the-classroom opportunity. My wife Kay and I have recently committed to match dollar-for-dollar all donations to this initiative through November 21, up to $10,000, to jumpstart opportunity, and we hope to contribute more in coming years.

I hope our friends and colleagues will help, too, especially alumni who have benefitted from the help of others, often strangers.  Please join me with a donation to build the VP Promise together. Your gift can change a life.