Jack's Insights June 2017

By Jack Whittier, Director, UNL Panhandle Extension District and Panhandle Research and Extension Center

“Hungry for knowledge.” That’s the way I describe the six undergraduate college students from Rwanda who have joined us at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center (PHREC) for a 10-week internship this summer. These six students, who joined us three weeks ago, are part of a larger group of 56 Rwandan students enrolled in the UNL CUSP program – short for CASNR Undergraduate Scholarship Program. Let me explain further. 

Jack Whittier

The College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources (CASNR) at UNL has established a scholarship program for students from Rwanda to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Integrated Science. It focuses on conservation agriculture, entrepreneurship, leadership, and innovative thinking aligned with areas of need identified by the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources.

At PHREC, we seized the opportunity to provide a summer experience to these bright and highly motivated students. In addition, we wanted the chance for our Extension specialists and Extension educators to learn from these students. You see, these six students, Germain Intwari, Peace Munyana, Liliane Umuhoza, Didier Ndenga, Tonny Ruhinda and Jovial Uwase, were selected from over 1,200 Rwandan applicants to participate as CUSP scholars. Furthermore, the six at PHREC were identified by the CUSP Director in Lincoln as trusted and mature enough to spend their summer internship 400 miles west of Lincoln.

Each student is paired with one of our agronomy specialists at PHREC to work alongside them on research and education programs to learn both the science and the practice of production agriculture.  Specialists who are mentoring CUSP students are Carlos Urrea, dry bean breeder; Bob Harveson, plant pathologist; Nevin Lawrence, weed management specialist; Bijesh Maharjan, soil science; and Dipak Santra, alternative crops specialist.  The students will take these experiences back to Lincoln for more classwork that will prepare them to make an impact in Rwanda when they return with their degrees in three to four years.

Why Rwanda?

It is said that Rwanda “is one of the most progressive African countries when it comes to modernizing agriculture.”  In 2007, Rwandan President Paul Kagame signed the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, with the aim to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty, and is committed to putting 10 percent of the government’s initial budget into agriculture and to growing the sector by 6 percent per year.

Given that agriculture is still the backbone of the economy in Rwanda and the main source of export earnings, education in agriculture will continue to play a pivotal role toward improving livelihoods of the Rwandan population.  It is the goal of the CUSP program to assist in this achievement.  We at the Panhandle Center are fortunate to play a part in this process.

On Tuesday this past week, the CUSP students were invited to the Gering/Scottsbluff Rotary Club.  Jeff Bradshaw, our PHREC entomology specialist and coordinator for the CUSP students’ internship here in Scottsbluff, explained the program to Rotary members.  Following Jeff, the students each took a turn at sharing their plan for learning this summer.  It was fun for me to watch the audience as these talented and articulate students, who are between the ages of 18 and 22, explained their background and objectives.  In true Panhandle fashion, Rotary members were intrigued to learn more about the students and their country.  It was a truly international experience for both parties.

Thanks to Panhandle Families

In order to provide a “touch of home” for the students while they are here, Darla Heggem, a well-known Mitchell resident and employee of the Rural Futures Institute at the University of Nebraska, reached out into the community and connected the students with host families.  These include the families of Mike and Lisa Moravec, Matt Hutt and Susan Dickinson, Lex and Jennie Larsen, Zac and Cristina Karpf, Bryan and Laura Barrett, and John and Kerri Berge.  This component of the CUSP student’s experience is sure to develop lasting relationships and likely lead to future experiences for both students and hosts.

I began this column with a comment about being hungry for knowledge.  These students are committed to improving the food supply of their country as a way to reduce physical hunger and help move Rwanda toward its stated goal of rising from an undeveloped country to a self-sufficient developed country by the year 2020.  My insight is that they are well on their way and our CUSP scholars will play a vital role in the future of feeding the hungry citizens of Rwanda.