Graduate students from Virginia Tech’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics fanned out across the globe last summer collecting surveys to help address global impact questions related to food security and poverty.
They were part of the department’s International Development cohort.
“Not every graduate program provides funding for students to conduct first-hand research in rural areas all across the globe,” said Muntasir Hasan, a recent M.S. graduate from Khulna, Bangladesh, who spent last summer working in Kenya. “In fact, it’s quite rare.”
These students spend months creating surveys designed to answer their research questions before traveling abroad. The distribution and collection of surveys to gather economic and social impact data on agricultural and forestry methods can then take anywhere from three weeks to three months.
“Creating surveys is hard work,” said Kate Vaiknoras, a fourth year Ph.D. student from Wakefield, Massachusetts, who spent last summer interviewing farmers in Rwanda. “Behind every ten-page journal article, there’s a lot of work that goes into creating surveys and collecting data.”
The work is hard, but rewarding.
“You grow as a compassionate human being while doing work in these areas,” said Craig Nelson of Mount Morris, Illinois, a second year master’s student who worked in Guinea.
A lot of growth comes from seeing how cultures and communities in developing countries live and work. But while abroad these students do more than just observe – they develop communication skills, resilience, and a broader global perspective through experiences collaborating with translators and being flexible while working with survey participants who are often reluctant to spare any working hours.
For many, the experience even helps shape their goals for life after graduate school.
“The research I did in Guinea made me refocus what I want to do after I graduate. I want to focus on gender empowerment, especially for women,” said Nelson.
Graduates of the program go on to work for universities, like Leah Harris Palm-Forster, a 2011 graduate who conducted thesis research in Bangladesh, then went on to pursue a Ph.D., and now holds a faculty position at the University of Delaware. Others, like Barry Weixler, a 2014 M.S. graduate who did research in Uganda, join development organizations; Weixler is currently at the Mennonite Central Committee working in Burkina Faso.
Still others continue their research at international research institutions, like Guy Hareau, a 2006 Ph.D. graduate who did research in Uruguay and now leads the social science group at the International Potato Center in Peru – an organization that continues to partner with Virginia Tech.
These students leave Virginia Tech with more than just an education; they leave enriched with confirmed or newfound direction, fortitude, and the skills needed to actualize their humanitarian aspirations.