Course AG 452: Issues Affecting California Agriculture is offered during the winter quarter at Cal Poly. Over a decade ago, it was the brainchild of successful lawyer and lobbyist George Soares, a partner with Kahn, Soares, & Conway, and the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences (CAFES). AG 452 is currently led by Dr. Mark Shelton. The class meets for 16 sessions with ag industry heavy-hitters as presenters—commodity board presidents, major policy shapers, and the like. For over ten years, the CAFES Dean’s Office has reviewed recommendations from department heads and selects the top twenty students to participate. The result: a class full of ag student rock stars! The Department of BioResource and Agricultural Engineering (BRAE) has had students accepted into AG 452 since the beginning. Most of them learn what they can and then move on to pre-planned careers in traditional BRAE and ASM fields. However, this was not the case for Arturo Barajas, B.S. ASM 2015, who now works at the California state capitol as a legislative aide to a state assembly member, and Stacie Ann Silva, a fourth-year ASM student who’s contemplating law school and a move to Sacramento. As a result of her experience in AG 452, Stacie plans to work in the capitol, like Arturo, upon graduation. The course culminates with a two-day trip to Sacramento for visits, presentations, and conversations with lobbyists, industry leaders, and lawyers, as well as a presentation of the group’s term project to the California Farm Bureau. This experience is where everything connected for Arturo and Stacie. When Arturo was in the class, he was also the Tractor Pull President and was focused on a career in the wine industry. Similarly, Stacie was the Ag Engineering Society President and was focused on a career in machinery and fabrication safety. Both were active participants during class discussions, and they were drawn toward policy and its ramifications, but the possibility of a career change did not occur to them until the trip to Sacramento. For Stacie, the change happened quickly. The prep for the term project was exciting, and her research into regulatory constraints on California agriculture was thought-provoking and all-consuming. At the state capitol, she was thrilled with the caliber of conversations she and the other class members engaged in. One particular presenter struck a nerve when he said that “ignorance is no longer acceptable, and there isn’t enough money or time to address this regulatory fight forever. We need to start thinking differently!” Going to law school after earning a technical degree is unusual, but the presenter’s words ignited a passion in Stacie, and she discovered her aptitude for the political. For Arturo, the Sacramento trip was also an eye-opening experience. He saw that there was a need for people who understand the technical issues in agriculture and water resources to also understand the legislative process. Having hands-on experience in researching current policies, compiling reports, and presenting his work at the capitol solidified his interest in work with the legislature. In addition, he realized that not everybody who worked in the capitol was a political scientist, and a diverse group of people is needed to develop effective policies. While the focus of an ASM degree is generally technical, the techniques for learning and processing information that it teaches make ASM graduates well suited for many fields, including law and public policy. During their undergrad years, Stacie and Arturo had no idea that their degrees were preparing them for game-changing careers in policy issues. One class might do the same for you!
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