ACES and Malawi’s premier agricultural university have much in common

Nov 8
Leslie Sweet Myrick, Office of International Programs Media Communications Specialist

Reciprocating the hospitality shown to Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones earlier this year as he and an Illinois delegation visited Africa, the ACES Office of International Programs was honored to host two distinguished administrators from Malawi’s Lilongwe University of Agriculture & Natural Resources (LUANAR) this week: Vice Chancellor George Yobe Kanyama-Phiri and Registrar Phillip Dalitso Frank Kaonda.

As part of the delegation’s program – highlights of which included signing a memorandum of understanding with the university and meeting with several administrators and faculty – LUANAR’s Vice Chancellor and Registrar provided an overview of LUANAR to an audience of ACES department heads and others to identify potential areas of partnership.

We learned that LUANAR opened in 2012 and since them, enrollment has increased rapidly: in four years it has increased around 400% and currently sits at 10,000 students.

But the presentation slide on LUANAR’s mission was particularly striking, as it confirmed why we were all sitting in this room together. Here is LUANAR’s mission:

To advance knowledge and produce relevant graduates with entrepreneurship skills for:

  • Agricultural growth
  • Food security
  • Wealth creation and
  • Sustainable natural resources management, through teaching, training, research, outreach, consultancy, and sound management.

Does this all look familiar?

As Dr. Jeff Brawn, head of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, said to the presenters, “Your programmatic lists could have been our own webpage.”

The challenges noted in the presentation were also familiar, particularly in terms of budget shortcomings, but LUANAR is set to receive funding from the World Bank to help take its mission “to the people.”

ACES International looks forward to seeing where this partnership could lead and helping to facilitate faculty, staff, and student engagements towards common goals. You can learn more about LUANAR here. Please contact the ACES Office of International Programs if you have ideas and/or interest in specific ways to engage.

Alex Winter-Nelson (left) with vice Chancellor George Yobe Kanyama-Phiri (middle) and Registrar Phillip Dalitso Frank Kaonda (right)

Division of Nutritional Sciences celebrates 50 years

Nov 2
Lauren Quinn, ACES Media Specialist

The Division of Nutritional Sciences, the interdisciplinary graduate program housed within the College of ACES, recently marked its 50th anniversary in a weekend-long series of events. More than 160 alumni, faculty, students, and administrators came together to celebrate the program’s long list of accomplishments, including its ranking in the top five nutritional sciences graduate programs in the United States.

“DNS had an enjoyable, informative, educational, insightful two days of celebration of 50 years of excellence training leaders in interdisciplinary nutritional sciences through education, innovation, and discovery,” said Elvira de Mejia, DNS director and professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Since 1968, more than 500 students have graduated from the program. Alumni now hold prominent positions in academia, industry, and governments around the world. Five distinguished alumni, graduating between 1976 and 2013, spoke during the event and captured the evolution of the program throughout its history.

“Our current students stand on the shoulders of those who came before them,” said Kimberlee Kidwell, dean of the College of ACES, during her remarks. “Our alumni should be very proud of the ripple effect they have created here, as our students continue the legacy of conducting fabulous research with amazing faculty advisors to address the world’s greatest challenges associated with nutrition, health, and well-being.”

The celebration also recognized the major contributions of DNS faculty to nutritional science as a discipline. The interdisciplinary nature of the program has led to important advancements in lipid and cholesterol metabolism; animal nutrition, including commercial diets; the relationship between diet, the gut microbiome, and human and animal health; and many more areas.

Speaker Rod Johnson, former DNS director and current head of the Department of Animal Sciences, pointed to the program’s Vision 20/20 seed grant program as a means of fostering creativity and interdisciplinary study. The program, initiated by Johnson, has now funded over $1M in interdisciplinary nutrition-related research, which has resulted in $16.8M in external funding and $1.3M in internal funding; an 18.1-fold return on investment.

“Vision 20/20 was established to encourage interdisciplinary nutrition-related research,” Johnson said. “It was intended to foster interaction and collaboration, and with an 18 to 1 return on investment, I’d say it has exceeded expectations.”

Keynote speaker John Erdman headlined the dinner banquet, amusing guests by likening the history of DNS to the plot of Star Wars.

“A long time ago on a campus not so far, far away, it was a period of civil war,” he said. “Departments, colleges, and many labs were operated as silos. But in 1966, a rebel alliance began to form among nutrition faculty across campus.”

He said the university administration – “the Empire” – balked initially, having no previous experience dealing with an interdisciplinary, cross-campus graduate program. But early leaders persevered and the Illinois Board of Higher Education approved the Nutritional Sciences Program in 1968.

Erdman, professor emeritus in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, studies how dietary changes reduce the risk of prostate cancer, among other pursuits. He has been involved with DNS in various roles for 42 of its 50 years, including serving as a past director of the division.

With 50 years behind them, DNS leaders are looking forward to the next 50. “DNS is committed to continuing working hard to maintain and enhance the scientific quality and development of our students to equip them to address complex interdisciplinary problems utilizing traditional and novel biological and sociological approaches,” de Mejia said.

From left: DNS associate director Jessica Hartke, former director Sharon Donovan, former director John Erdman, former director Rod Johnson, and current director Elvira de Mejia.  Photo by Ariel Majewski.

Change is in the air

Nov 1
Judy Mae Bingman, 4-H Media & Marketing

It’s that time of year when the minds of 4-H storytellers turn to impact reports.

My understanding of impact has changed in the years since I first studied Ag communications in the basement of Mumford Hall. It took real life to show me what my professors tried so hard to teach me.

Impact isn’t what I did; impact is WHAT CHANGED IN OTHERS because I did something.

In my early days “doing” 4-H work, I thought it was enough that I held events. I counted heads in the room and thought I was doing my job. Thirty-five years later, I finally get it.

You can be busy and never create impact.

In Illinois 4-H, our impact statements are simply stated: 4-H youth see science as a solution to everyday problems; 4-H youth make healthy choices; 4-H youth improve their communities; 4-H youth are confident communicators who advocate for change; 4-H youth produce safe food to feed a growing world population.

It’s one thing to fill a room with participants. It’s another to see changes in attitude, behavior, and condition in others and our communities because of what happened in the room.

Whatever your position in life at this moment, ask yourself: “What is different today than yesterday because of something I did?” The difference you see is your impact on the world.

Benches with fall leaves all around
Photo by Rula Sibai on Upsplash

Beauty from tragedy

Oct 30
Stephanie Henry, ACES Media Specialist

Sometimes, in the most tragic of situations, it takes finding beauty to find the path to healing.

Standing there in the sunshine, with more than a hundred other people, the sense of grief was palpable, but the support we find in community and how we care for one another in difficult times was present, too.

Just a few weeks ago, on Oct. 11, ACES, University of Illinois, and other visitors shared in a ceremony dedicating the Yingying Zhang Garden, a small, peaceful garden that memorializes the visiting scholar from China who disappeared in June 2017.

The 600-square foot garden was installed at the corner of North Goodwin Ave. and West Clark St. in Urbana, near the bus stop where Yingying Zhang, who worked in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in ACES, was last seen.

During the ceremony, various members of the ACES and U of I community shared memories of Zhang, as well as acknowledged the effort and cooperation of the many volunteers who made the garden a reality.

ACES Dean Kim Kidwell shared these words, “This garden is a beautiful representation of a community effort to create something positive out of a tragic situation.”

And she was right. As she read the long list of volunteers who helped with the garden, the number of donations—of time and materials—from businesses in the community, and the city leaders that approved the project, standing there near the garden, it felt good to be part of the community. 

The project was led by personnel from U of I Extension, with volunteers from the U of I Chinese Students and Scholars Association helping to install the garden. Champaign Master Gardeners Christina Nordholm and Phyllis Williams designed the garden, drawing from Chinese art history to create a place that would feel reminiscent of home to Zhang.

The garden features white rock, and a path leading to a stone bench. The plants, when mature, will fill the garden with blooms of white and green, symbolizing peace. The design also includes a weeping cherry, a dwarf Juniper Standard, hydrangea, evergreen boxwood plants, and others, carefully chosen to complement the theme. A garden stone was also unveiled during the ceremony.

Whether you pass this corner of campus regularly, or you are visiting campus, you are invited to walk the path in the garden, sit a moment on the bench, and take in the in beauty that was carefully and thoughtfully planned and planted to honor a member of the ACES community.

Rolling with the Punches

Oct 29
Maggie Sweppy, Senior in Agricultural Education

Let me tell you about my weekend. After competing at a livestock judging contest, (which is an exhausting process, but we’ll talk about that in a later blog post) I stayed the night with my friend who lived in the area. She showed me around her college town and we had a great time. I had homework due the next day, and LOTS of laundry to do, so we planned on leaving early to get back to Illinois on time.

The first sign that this was going to be a challenging day was when her car didn’t start and we had to jump it. No big deal. We were a little behind but got on the road soon enough. Then about 15 minutes into our 2-hour trip, we heard a weird noise and, after sharing a concerned glance when the noise intensified ̶ much louder and much more alarming ̶ we pulled over to find a flat tire. Despite that fact that neither of us has ever changed a tire (I know I know it’s a life skill we need to learn) we were confident we could handle this. We unloaded the spare doughnut tire out of the truck only to discover that the jack was not there. So we had to call her brother. When he arrived, the parts he brought didn’t work, so we had to ride back with him to get the right ones. Finally we got back to her car ̶ with the right parts ̶ and even though the ground was almost too soft for the jack to work, we were able to get the spare tire on and head back to her house where we switched out cars with her mom (who feels confident enough to drive on the interstate with a doughnut? Not us) As we backed out of the drive, she turned a little too sharp and the front end of the truck hit the side of her brother’s car…that he had owned for a day. Don’t worry, we think it should buff out. Needless to say, we drove VERY carefully on the way back. We planned on being back by 2 or 3 and we weren’t back until 7.

Plans rarely work out the way we intend. There’s a reason the saying “Things that can go wrong will go wrong” is so well known. That’s just a part of life and it’s out of our control. But what we can control is our attitude. Throughout this frustrating day, my friend and I laughed way more than we ever huffed and puffed about how life isn’t fair. As the semester continues and the content of your classes intensifies, remember that while work and preparation are crucial, even when you do everything right, things will go wrong. It’s way more fun to laugh it off than it is to huff and puff.

Hands holding a tire with a hole in it

From Emerging to Exceptional

Oct 22
Craig Lemoine, Director, Financial Planning Program and Clinical Associate Professor

For the last nine years, the Financial Planning Association (FPA) has hosted a collegiate competition at their annual conference. The contest gives students the opportunity to showcase what they know on a national stage and win significant scholarships for their schools. Students come out of the competition with stronger résumés and life-long friendships.

Our financial planning program at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana began ten years ago, and last year (2017) was our first time fielding a team. We won second place and turned some heads in the process. After that success, our 2018 team had great ambition.

This competition has three rounds. In the first round, teams submit a written financial plan to a panel of judges. The top eight schools advance in the contest and are invited to the national conference. This year, the FPA national conference was in Chicago. We have nine years of alumni in Chicago; firms recruit out of our program from Chicago. We were thrilled at the idea of competing in the windy city.

Then, on a fortuitous day in July, our team received an email with the subject line “Financial Planning Challenge 2018 Results”. It started with the word unfortunately and went on to share that – UIUC would not be advancing.

The sting was palatable. We had just won second place, and the FPA conference was in Chicago this year! We were mad. We were embarrassed. We felt defeated.

As the corn grew around us, students arrived back to campus. The sun beat down on our tent at Quad Day, and student leaders, including our FPA contest team, shared about the Financial Planning Club and our program. We spoke in classrooms, interviewed students, and grew what had been a club of twenty-five into one of sixty. Our concentration in the ACE major flourished as well, growing from 82 students to 96 this year.

Growth and enthusiasm are contagious. We spent the fall raising money and with the help of alumni, friends, and Financial Planning Association’s generous scholarship program, we sent two dozen students to attend this year’s FPA conference in early October.

Over three days, we networked with more than 1500 financial planners. Our students attended every keynote and dove into discussions, panels, and dinners. We made new friends, interviewed with companies, and connected with mentors. We learned about client behavior, retirement longevity, dreaming big, and the global economy. By the end, our fuses were lit with a passion for this great profession.

But the moment of the conference that will always stay with me: after two days of answering, “Why aren’t you guys competing again?” and, “What happened?”, our students were asked to volunteer to help with the last round of the contest. They all came to watch, cheer, and pitch in.

On the final day of the conference, the Chairman of the Financial Planning Association, Shannon Pike, opened the general session with a picture of our group, chanting ILL (with a robust INI response). Shannon recognized the growth and spirit of our program, then by name, praised the professionalism and character of three of our students: Madison Meridian, Gwendolyn Orr, and Jack Petras. Those were the same three who received the fortuitous email in July, dusted themselves off, and helped build something amazing.

After the last keynote, we took the stage with Shannon – all of us grinning ear to ear. We were on the main stage after all and for something so much greater than winning. Our students had been generous, professional and embodied the spirit of the University of Illinois. They had made an exceptional impression which will pay our alumni, students and program dividends for years to come.

ACE students posing for a picture at the FPA conference

Next Step in my Life

Oct 16
Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

By Lupe Cruz, senior in ABE

It is now October in the school year. That, combined with the fact that I am a senior, means I will have to get my game face on and tackle this year hard. It’s ironic that some people think the term “senior-itis” means more of a relaxed year. To me it’s the year where I decide what I want to do with my future, because this is the season of résumé editing, career fairs, and interviewing.

I have just finished my summer with a business management internship, and it was a great learning experience. I went over profit and loss statements, daily operating revenue reports, and there was something new every day because of all the customers to satisfy. However, I don’t plan on going back to the company because I want to pursue something else in the construction industry. Because of that, I went into this school year knowing that I would have to work hard to try and catch the eyes of recruiters, whether it be online or at on-campus career fairs. In the College of ACES, I fully utilize our career resources, and I recommend them to anyone needing advice or assistance. I’m able to get professional opinions on my résumé and see what needs to be edited and how I need to present myself to employers.

I thoroughly enjoy going to career fairs because I am a social person and love meeting new people. I know a face-to-face conversation with a big company might scare some people, but I personally love it. [Side note: it’s beneficial for me to speak with many different companies as well, because the more companies I speak with, the better my “elevator pitch” becomes.] I was able to land a few interviews from the career fair, which is something I was really excited about. Those respective interviews went very well in my opinion; I kept eye contact, sat up straight, and the interviews had a more personal atmosphere rather than an employer-candidate one. Although if I’m being honest, I do need to work on my phone-interviewing capabilities. I had one that was a bit difficult for me because I could not read any body language.

The University of Illinois has treated me very well. These past four years I made life-long friends, unforgettable memories, and significantly enhanced my knowledge and learning. The job hunting and interviewing I have done has set into reality that this is my last year here. I am about to embark on my next journey, and as I take these next steps in my life, I can confidently say I am excited for what the future will bring.

Lupe Cruz in a suit

Falling for ACES

Oct 10
Madalyn Hammel, Graduate Student in Agricultural Education

If you were to ask me about some of my favorite things regarding my time with the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, I would paint you a picture of the university in the fall; full of color, students rushing to class, the leaves crunching under their feet, and the aroma of coffee. The tree foliage on the south quad consists of a pallet of orange, yellows, and reds. The air is crisp, and you are snuggled up in a sweater walking to class with me. I fell in love with the College of ACES during the fall while taking electives to fulfill my degree requirements and discovering ACES in full color. It was through these course requirements that I recognized how much I could learn outside my core classes from the other ACES subjects and professors. Each new class brought a unique color combination to my pallet of classes.

As a prerequisite for my major, I had to take Horticulture 100. I loved the class because the professors brought great knowledge of the horticulture world to the classroom and I still utilize and value this education. Instead of looking at horticulture as a topic few people still access, I embraced it and found enjoyment for myself. Our professors created assignments that sent me out, which helped familiarize me with the south quad and the plants that call the tract of land home. I loved the class so much that I enrolled in Horticulture 106 with two of my previous professors to learn more about how I can be a proper home horticulturist. We learned how to take cuttings of plants so that eventually we can have more houseplants through propagation and not have to buy them. This class also discussed the importance of lawn care, composting and our impact on the environment.

To further find my love for horticulture I signed up for Hort 107: Floral Design. I learned to identify, care and transform simple flowers into elegant designs that make a statement, along with brushing up on my knowledge of colors and design techniques. All of these lessons were taught with the teacher's enthusiasm for horticulture that was contagious. Everyone should know that keeping fresh flowers in the house goes beyond just dumping them in a vase.

To continue my time in the crop sciences department and to learn more about my favorite addiction, I enrolled in CPSC 117: Agriculture and Science of Coffee. In this class, we discovered more about the drink that we rely on so heavily, its diverse history and involved growing/harvesting practices, and the significant impact it has on our economy. We learned how to be informed consumers and demystified the true meaning on the coffee labels and how to know a quality cup of joe.

While enrolled in ACE 231, my teacher sparked my interest in the world outside of academia and provided me with the skills I needed as an adult entering the workforce. My classmates and I learned such things as what to expect at your first job, what a successful company looks like, and how to find a company that is the best fit for you. This teacher was the first educator ever to tell me that while on the job it is okay to stop working and think. He encouraged us to think about what you want your product to look like and to think through a solution, not just work nonstop at trying to find the answer.

The College of ACES fosters learning by allowing students the opportunity to venture out of their program and try new and diverse classes. With the diversity of courses, you can acquire a knowledge about subjects like coffee, plants, or how to find a job. There are even clubs on campus that help you share your ideas and learn more about topics with other students such as Hort Club or AgEd Club. You can contemplate all of the learning opportunities available while walking between classes and enjoying the fall scenery the University of Illinois has to offer.

Keep moving forward

Oct 3
Kelsey Litchfield, ACES Communications & Marketing

One of my favorite Disney movies is “Meet the Robinsons.” From its futuristic storyline to its corny humor, I always change the channel to that movie if I see it on. Throughout each scene, there is one scripted line that is said over and over – “keep moving forward.” I didn’t think much about it until the ending scene when a quote from Walt Disney himself shows up on the screen. It reads:

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

That’s an important life lesson there, friends. It’s a noteworthy message whether you are in college, just starting a new job, or maybe a seasoned veteran in your career. You could summarize that phrase as “don’t be complacent.”

If there’s anything you take out of this blog and my written words, know you are meant to keep learning and exploring in your career. As a young professional, I know there’s so much more for me to learn about. I need to keep moving forward and growing in life and my career. The same goes for you. You never know what you will discover until you try something new. 

Oh, and if you ever see that “Meet the Robinsons” is on TV, flip the channel to it and you’ll be glad you did. For me, it’s a nice reminder to “keep moving forward.”

Applying yourself

Sep 27
Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

By John “Brady” Winkler, Senior in ABE

Semester after semester, year after year, we are told the importance of school and learning, but what good is this knowledge if you refuse to use it?  My professors, the faculty, and even my parents have continually stressed this, but I don’t think I truly understood what it meant until I had the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned at this great institution.

This summer I had the privilege to intern as a process engineer within the research and development department at McCain Foods in Appleton, Wisconsin.  This was an absolutely incredible professional experience, and it solidified my belief in and love for this university and the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Without the resources and guidance provided by my professors and other faculty, I would not have had this opportunity to thrive.

However, this is not what I am stressing with this post. We have all of the tools for success here at the University of Illinois, but it means nothing if we do not embrace and utilize them. As students and professionals we must never become complacent. We cannot just be happy with getting good grades because what good is a technical or personal skill if we cannot expand on it and delve into the beauty and complexity of an industry?  Getting a job and hands-on industry experience is truly what it’s all about. I have found this hands-on experience is crucial in setting your career goals and expanding your learning outside of the classroom. I am excited to continue this senior year, and I am excited to dive head first into the real world knowing that I have been prepared to be successful.