Dozens of ACES alumni returned to the University of Illinois campus in September to celebrate the impacts of an international internship experience and reconnect with a mentor, professor emeritus Lowell Hill.
For over two decades, agricultural economics students under Hill’s supervision covered the globe to shed light on practices and standards in international grain trade.
Hill remembers, “Starting in 1975 I sent students, singly and in pairs, on international research assignments. They collected valuable data, often confidential, that no one else had been able to obtain. I sent them with only a few contacts and general guidelines on assignments many considered impossible.”
The interns’ experiences spanned from 1975 to 1999 and covered diverse topics and regions, but all the students rose to challenges in ways that prepared them for success in their professional and personal lives.
Over a three-day reunion, the former interns were joined by other students, colleagues, and friends from Hill’s era. Several interns presented reflections on their experiences, in some cases sharing the podium with fellow interns they hadn’t seen in decades.
An overriding theme of the reunion was Hill’s philosophy that students are not vessels to be filled with information but flames to be lit. The challenges and accomplishments of the international internships sparked many fires, and, as noted by one former intern, “This fire kept burning throughout their lives and careers.”
Former intern Sophia Battle (BS 1999, MS 2001) recounted her internship in Vienna where her assigned task was to promote agricultural trade between the U.S. and Austria. Her work included coordinating special events, attending trade policy meetings, and supporting the development of industry reports.
“Not only did we interns navigate through countries, but also culture, special interests, and politics,” Battle said. “Hill’s mentorship didn’t give us the answers but instead gave us a problem to solve.”
“Keep in mind these assignments were completed with no internet, no cell phone, no GPS. We used maps and train schedules,” noted Jeanne Bailey, who along with Karen Bender navigated through Europe distributing a survey on grain quality. “Over three months and across nine countries, we distributed 800 surveys and conducted 30 personal interviews to glean as much relevant data as possible, to use, not only in our theses, but to also support U of I work to help U.S. exporters compete more effectively in the EU market.”
Looking back, Bender is surprised they were able to gain access to some of the people they did. “Saying Dr. Hill’s name and the University of Illinois was an ‘open sesame.’ No one said “no”. The assignment was a tough one but we weren’t going to come back empty-handed,” she said. Dr. Hill’s reputation and network opened similar doors for interns working in Thailand, Japan, Russia, and Latin America.
The budgets were extremely tight, and Hill remembered one student whose funds had run out using his train pass to sleep as he rode between cities each night.
Hill admits sometimes he didn’t expect the interns to bring back all the information he requested. But they always did.
“I gave you opportunities and challenges. It was what you did with these that made the difference in your lives,” Hill said.
The interns were all immensely thankful for the experiences. But Hill again deflected this praise, and said, “They can thank me for the experiences I provided, but what they gave me in return dramatically enhanced my career.”
Paying it forward
As part of the reunion, current ACES students were invited to join the group for a panel discussion on “Feeding the World in 2050.” The panelists, representing several perspectives, included:
ACES students were also invited to interact with another notable ACES alumni, former ambassador Allan Mustard (MS, 1982).
The interns parted with plans to pay it forward.
“When a student asks for an interview, give it. Think about what internships you can offer,” Bender suggested.
Hill’s legacy continues today in some of the programs coordinated by ACES International.
“Today we are institutionalizing the kinds of activities that Lowell started, says Alex Winter-Nelson, associate dean for international programs. “Through our Global Food Security Internships and Global Academy, we are trying to provide resources and opportunities for more faculty members to do the kinds of things that Lowell Hill executed at high volume. We’d like to build more faculty like Lowell Hill.”