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Students Who Will Change the Central Valley

By Ben Ginsburg on March 30, 2015 in Student Life

Transitioning from the small town of Porterville to university life was a bit of a shock for Casey Erickson. The UC Davis student encountered a more rigorous educational environment than he was used to, where work and play need to be carefully balanced.

But right away, this plant science major saw the benefit of coming to such a diverse and connected university. And this past year, he discovered the Central Valley Scholars Program.

The program supports students like Erickson who seek careers in the Central Valley, especially those related to agriculture and veterinary medicine. He’s discovered internships and professional networking opportunities with an engaged agricultural community.

UC Davis expanded his network

“UC Davis was a completely new experience,” Erickson said. “I came to a new place where I didn’t know anybody, and no one knew me, and now I have such an expanded network and valuable friendships that wouldn’t have happened anywhere else.”

For the 2014-15 year there are four new Central Valley Scholars, including Erickson, Maria Zumkeller, Anna Haller and Lauren Brackett, who tell their stories of how they will be changing the future of the Central Valley.

Centered on bolstering the Central Valley’s workforce by helping youth from the area achieve the dream of going to college at UC Davis, the Central Valley Scholars Program began last year thanks to philanthropic support.

No. 1 agricultural school in the world

UC Davis, the No. 1 agricultural school in the world, is committed to helping this important agricultural region and the farmers and families who live there through programs like the one for Central Valley Scholars.

California’s Central Valley is one of the world’s most important and productive agricultural regions, with more than 230 different crops that translate into billions of dollars worth of food each year.

It is also a region with many challenges: It contains three of the poorest cities in the country, pollution is on the rise and modern farming techniques are having negative impacts on the local ecology.

Changing Central Valley dynamics

‘Now I have such an expanded network and valuable friendships that wouldn’t have happened anywhere else.’

— Casey Erickson

Erickson had the chance to talk about his part in changing those dynamics during a fall luncheon with UC Davis alumnus and program founder Chuck Nichols, who has championed UC Davis’ efforts to reinforce agricultural and veterinary developments in the Central Valley.

It was an opportunity Erickson says he wishes he had discovered earlier at UC Davis because he loves connecting with people with determination and big ideas who are investing in students like him. And the program’s goal fits his own aspirations — improving the prosperity of the region, state and  country.

Networking with area leaders and teachers

Agriculture and community have always played a major role in Fresno resident Maria Zumkeller’s life from the time she was a child. Zumkeller, a plant science major planning to graduate from UC Davis in 2018, developed close relationships with her teachers and volunteer leaders in nearby Sanger, where she went to school.

Pursuing an education at UC Davis has given her more tools to meet her goals.

“Everyone here is thinking about the consequences of their actions, how they’re going to affect someone else,” she says. “UC Davis encompasses everything I believe in, everything I want to be.”

All things connect to agriculture

‘Everyone here is thinking about the consequences of their actions, how they’re going to affect someone else. UC Davis encompasses everything I believe in, everything I want to be.’

— Maria Zumkeller

According to Zumkeller, everyone in the Central Valley is connected to agriculture either through working in the industry or knowing someone who does. She’s interested in studying how involving farmers in research projects will impact the outcomes as well as the agricultural community overall.

When she graduates, Zumkeller has a dream — to go back to the Central Valley and help rebuild it.

“I’ve changed my plans 20 million times, and I’ll probably change them 20 million times more, but the only thing that hasn’t changed is that I want to give back,” she says.

In love with agriculture

Anna Haller, an agricultural and environmental education major, will graduate in 2016 as a Central Valley Scholar. She says she fell in love with all things agriculture long ago.

Her family has a history in agriculture, and she’s been participating in stock shows since she was young. In high school, Haller earned the American FFA Degree, the highest award given by the Future Farmers of America.

Transferring to UC Davis after two years at Moorpark College, Haller reports she is thrilled to be attending her dream school as a Central Valley Scholarship recipient.

Competitions to help fellow students

‘I want to influence someone who may not know about agriculture, and I can inspire them to get into the field and thrive in it like I have.’

— Anna Haller

Haller’s experience working at the dairy on campus this past summer and her years of stock show competitions have well-prepared her for helping her fellow students in their agricultural pursuits. She is a dairy heifer co-coordinator for the Little International Stock Show at UC Davis.

For Haller, who was inspired by her agriculture teachers, education is a way to exponentially build the positive momentum in the Central Valley.

“I want to influence someone who may not know about agriculture, and I can inspire them to get into the field and thrive in it like I have,” said Haller. “It changed my life for the better and I want to change somebody’s life for the better. As a teacher you get that chance every single day.”

Soft spot for livestock

Another Central Valley Scholar, animal science and management major Lauren Brackett, has a soft spot in her heart for livestock and the farmers who work with them.

Her affinity began at the age of 7, when Brackett began spending her summers on her grandparents’ farm in Iowa. There she bonded with a horse she tended.

The many hands-on opportunities she’s experienced as a first-year animal science and management student at UC Davis have deepened her affection for livestock.

Newborn piglets seal the deal

‘Right in front of me there were newborn piglets! It was then that I knew this is exactly what I want to do; I never could have imagined it anywhere else.’

— Lauren Brackett

“I was in my Animal Science 49 [swine management] lab, and one of the sows began farrowing,” said Brackett who participated this fall in a stock show competition with her piglet, Willy. “Right in front of me there were newborn piglets! It was then that I knew this is exactly what I want to do; I never could have imagined it anywhere else.”

As a sixth-generation Californian, Brackett believes that pursuing a career in the Central Valley helps her fulfill her legacy in the state that she calls home. A long-term goal is bringing innovations to facilities that will increase production for the ranchers and make life more humane for the animals.

“I wish I had some cool story as to how I got here, but I’m just an all-American girl: I drive a Jeep, nothing special,” said Brackett. “But I ended up here at UC Davis, and that’s special to me.”

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