The MEA Center of Excellence supports collaborative programs among the 1890 land-grant institutions to recruit, retain, mentor and graduate underrepresented students; provide workforce development experiences for students to enhance the pipeline from high school to undergraduate programs, graduate programs and careers; increase students’ engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and provide students from grade school through college with experiential learning opportunities related to soft skills, research skills, international engagement, conference attendance, leadership training and technology skill development.

Objective 1: Recruit, Retain, Mentor and Graduate

The MEA Center of Excellence will support the design and sharing of innovative ways for 1890 land-grant universities to recruit, retain, mentor and graduate students from underrepresented minority groups in the food, agriculture, natural resources and human (FANH) sciences and related STEM fields.

Given the projections that the U.S. will have a white minority by 2045, it is imperative that investments be made to focus on the recruitment and retention and graduation of underrepresented students in these disciplines. Despite years of efforts to expand and diversify the scientific workforce, data show a pattern of continued underrepresentation by race and ethnicity. Targeted university recruitment and retention programs can encourage young people to pursue and complete degrees in the FANH sciences and STEM.

A recent study led by N.C. A&T faculty examined effective student recruitment and retention practices used by 1890s, 1862s and non-land-grant institutions. As a result, an agricultural student retention model that includes advising strategies and targeted retention practices was developed. The center will use this model as part of a mix of creative practices to increase the diversity of the agricultural workforce.

Some of the model components planned for use by the center include frequent email communication with students and parents, a website optimized for mobile browsers, campus open house events, campus visit days for high school and community college students, and increased use of social media. Partners will improve retention through expanded academic support, opportunities for relevant work experiences, advising by professional staff, first-year programs and orientation courses, an early intervention system for struggling students, and professional development for faculty.

The center partners will seek additional funding to support this objective from foundations, government agencies and the private sector. Further, center partners will establish synergistic partnerships with the private sector to support the training and placement of minority graduates into jobs in various sectors of food and agriculture.

Objective Leaders

  • Dr. Nina Lyon Bennett, Ph.D., University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (Lead)
  • Paula E. Faulkner, Ph.D., N.C. A&T (Co-lead)
Objective 2: Workforce Development

The MEA Center of Excellence will support workforce development experiences for students so that more students pursue agriculture-related studies and careers. Experiential learning opportunities and effective mentoring can provide invaluable support for academic and professional success.

Workplace development activities help students acquire and demonstrate their work readiness to potential employers. Job shadowing and internships also reinforce to students the importance and relevance of their studies.

Mentoring allows university faculty and staff to serve as personal connections, informational resources and professional role models for young adults. Research shows that freshmen assigned to mentors show greater gains in problem solving, goal setting and decision making compared to their non-mentored counterparts. Faculty mentorship programs have been demonstrated to positively impact the transition to college, increase college self-efficacy and overall happiness, and improve research skills.

In addition, peer mentoring can help students adapt more easily to new academic environments. The mentor-mentee relationship gives the mentee a sense of being connected to the larger community, reducing the likelihood that the mentee will drop out or switch programs.

Workforce development opportunities offered by center partners will include seminars on career preparation and planning, career services such as mock interviews and help with resume writing, meetings with industry leaders, and tours of college campuses and USDA and industry facilities.

Objective Leaders

  • Misty Blue-Terry, Ph.D., N.C. A&T (Co-lead)
  • Olga Bolden-Tiller, Ph.D., Tuskegee University (Lead)
  • Adrian Hendricks, Lincoln University (Co-lead)
Objective 3: STEM Engagement

The MEA Center of Excellence will support expanding students’ knowledge of and engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. These efforts, aimed at middle school, high school, community college and undergraduate students, will increase interest in the food, agriculture, natural resources and human (FANH) sciences and related STEM fields.

Several studies on this topic suggest that early exposure to agricultural experiences and career paths during middle and high school can positively influence agricultural perceptions and attitudes. Research also shows that students who have an interest in STEM in the early years of their education are more likely to pursue that interest, resulting in a STEM-related career.

Unfortunately, by the eighth grade, many students have concluded that STEM subjects are too challenging or boring. The center will address this problem by focusing on middle and high school students. Programs held outside school hours, such as 4-H and FFA, have long-standing impacts on the youth whom they serve and can help close the achievement gap.

Center partners will boost the capacity of their institutions to offer innovative programming, including camps, internships, research projects, laboratory work and science competitions for students. The center will serve as a clearinghouse to share detailed plans and best practices about these programs among the 1890 institutions.

Objective Leaders

  • Misty Blue-Terry, Ph.D., N.C. A&T (Co-lead)
  • Verian D. Thomas, Ph.D., Florida A&M University (Lead)
Objective 4: Experiential Learning

The MEA Center of Excellence will support experiential learning opportunities for students, K-16, to promote the development of soft skills, research skills, leadership skills, technology skills and international engagement.

Survey results from more than 200 employers indicate that positions often remain open because employers can’t find applicants who are motivated and possess strong interpersonal skills. The need for students with better soft skills is clear.

Researchers have found that soft skills predict success in life and, potentially, work. With respect to research experiences, a recent study showed that underrepresented students who completed 10 or more hours of co-curricular research and conducted faculty-mentored research weekly were more likely to graduate with a science-related bachelor’s degree.

Center partners will build on partnering institutions’ existing frameworks for high school and undergraduate research programs, in-person and online soft-skill training, and K-16 leadership programs that can support the entire 1890 land-grant system.

The center also will help partners expand opportunities for study abroad by underrepresented minorities studying food, agriculture, natural resources and human (FANH) sciences and related STEM fields. To achieve this, the MEA Center of Excellence will leverage and collaborate with the Center of Excellence for International Engagement and Development, an 1890 Center of Excellence based at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, to involve more underrepresented students in study abroad opportunities.

All center partners will share their experiences with international engagement and support other 1890 institutions in expanding their international programs.

Objective Leaders

  • Michelle Corley, Ph.D., Virginia State University (Lead)
  • Paula E. Faulkner, Ph.D., N.C. A&T (Co-lead)
  • Jurgen G. Schwarz, Ph.D., University of Maryland Eastern Shore (Co-lead)