Professors devote their careers to scientific discovery, creating knowledge for future generations, and building programs that pass that knowledge on. But few talk about their profession with the kind of passion and enthusiasm Dixie Dalton exudes.
“Agricultural Economics is an amazing discipline,” said Dalton, a ’87 B.S. and ’89 M.S. graduate of the Virginia Tech Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. “It explains all of the decision-making that we do individually and collectively, and there are really so many different ways to apply it; whether you’re interested in management, marketing, finance – it’s all right there.”
Sitting in an Engle Hall auditorium of 150+ students almost three decades ago, Dalton remembers falling in love with “ag econ” during her first undergraduate semester. A native of rural Lunenburg County, Virginia, Dalton recalls listening intently to Professor Wayne Purcell explain the cyclical nature of agriculture and how price cycles impact decision-making on the farm.
“That class opened conversations with my family,” said Dalton. “I found it exciting to go home and tell my dad tips I picked up in class. Everything I learned just made so much sense.”
Dalton came to Virginia Tech intending to study animal science and become a veterinarian – a plan she had since she was five years old – but she quickly switched majors to pursue her newfound interest.
And like any true love story, Dalton’s tale does not end there.
After completing her undergraduate degree within the department, Dalton went on to pursue a master’s degree and a doctorate, landing her first job as an assistant professor in the very department she fell in love with as an 18-year-old student.
“Getting the job at Virginia Tech was a dream come true,” said Dalton. “I had such a great experience here as an undergrad, I just couldn’t imagine that my first job would be in the same department that had helped shape me.”
As a faculty member in Virginia Tech’s Agricultural and Applied Economics department, Dalton worked alongside the same professors she had come to admire and respect as an undergraduate, and then master’s student in the department.
“It was the perfect place to be,” Dalton said. “I always tell my students to work hard to position themselves to take advantage of luck when it comes; I was really lucky that Virginia Tech had an opening right when I was finishing up my dissertation at Duke University.”
For 17 years Dalton served the department that had changed the course of her future, building a teaching and Extension rapport with her former professors, now colleagues, and advocating for students in and out of the classroom. She taught many classes on agribusiness management and marketing, but her favorite was the large 150+ seat introductory course that had piqued her interest years before.
“It was such a powerful class to teach because its potential impact is so great – you’re able to show students the doors ag econ opens and the way it makes you think” said Dalton. “And I did have students come tell me how they, too, had fallen in love with it.”
Because of her own story and these shared experiences, Dalton continues to impact students and advocate for the field she loves so much, only today it’s in a slightly different role.
Dalton left Virginia Tech in 2010 to build an agribusiness program at Southside Community College in Keysville, Virginia, just three miles from the farm she grew up on. She taught in the program for five years, serving as its chair and academic advisor until being named one of the college’s deans in fall 2015. Now, seven years after starting the program, she still serves as chair and advisor to the program she helped build from the ground up, and occasionally still accompanies students on their fall field trips to see agribusiness in action.
“I am a firm believer in Southside’s mission to provide a pathway for students who may need a stepping stone,” said Dalton. “I wanted to generate enthusiasm for agribusiness back home and I was able to do that by building courses that fed directly into Virginia Tech’s curriculum for liberal education.”
Since Dalton left Virginia Tech, she has encouraged countless students to pursue a four-year degree at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and has sent many bright stars to various departments within the college.
“I get to combine my passion for agriculture and helping students achieve goals,” Dalton said. “It truly is the perfect combination.”