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Diversity Is Coming to Agriculture and Rural America

Get Set to Work With This New Diverse Generation Courtesy of Land-Grant Universities.

Back in 1987, a college chum attending graduate school at Washington State University brought his California-born fiancée back to South Dakota to meet his folks and friends. (She passed both with flying colors.)

Still, one remark she made always stuck like a barb in my brain as we walked across my alma mater, South Dakota State University (SDSU) in Brookings.

“Everyone here is so white.”


Well, yes. At the time, Brookings residents and SDSU students were about as plain-Jane-vanilla-white as you could get.

Well, maybe not as sheet white as where I grew up in northeastern South Dakota. Except for a smattering of American Indians attending my high school, most of the state’s largest minority remained cloistered on reservations. All this contrasted with the ethnic melting pot that my friend’s fiancée grew up in.

Flash forward a generation. Minorities make up a chunk of my children’s best friends. Our next-door neighbors are Chinese. A Japanese woman lives across the street, and several Indian (from India) families live down the next three blocks. All are highly educated and hold excellent jobs.

Granted, agriculture has a number of minorities working on farms. Few, though, are in management or positions that require a college degree. Most of the farm meetings and shows I attend are as white as they were back in 1987.

This will change, though. In my home state’s largest city of Sioux Falls, about one-third of its students are minorities speaking over 80 languages.

All this isn’t lost on Barry Dunn, the incoming president of SDSU. He sees immigrants like these and American Indians as new populations for land-grant universities like SDSU to serve.

“We are getting ready for the population demographics that we see,” he says. “This is really, really important.”

Sons and Daughters of Toil

Prior to 1862’s Morrill Act, a college education was reserved for the country’s elite classes. Rep. Justin Morrill (R-Vermont), the Act’s sponsor, and President Abraham Lincoln shattered this provincial wall by extending educational opportunities to all via land-grant colleges and universities.

SDSU will continue to offer those opportunities to the original descendants of those sons and daughters of toil, says Dunn. But he told those attending his inauguration last week it will also extend those educational dreams to youth who don’t resemble students of generations past.
“This university wasn’t started to serve the sons and daughters of one color or ethnic background,” Dunn says. “It was started to serve the sons and daughters of all people.”

Historically, American Indians have had minimal enrollment at SDSU. However, Dunn, who’s also an enrolled member of South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Tribe, says American Indians living on the state’s reservations make up about 10% of South Dakota’s population. They’re also the state’s fastest growing demographic.

The promise of the state’s young American Indians comes with a complex and troubled past. “It is a past that anybody who really looks at and understands the history of this region cannot be very proud of,” says Dunn.

Hope exists, though, in the relationships that Dunn is now forming with potential students. Attending his inauguration were several American Indian students from Washington High School in Sioux Falls. They initially wrote Dunn after reading about his tribal heritage. Touched, Dunn visited their class and invited them to his inauguration, at which they presented him with a traditional Native American star quilt.

Tough Sell

Children of new immigrants don’t have this troubled history. Still, they, along many children of American Indians, have the potential to be first-generation college students in a few years. Selling their parents on an educational investment won’t be easy. Students and their parents now bear much more of the cost of a college education than when Dunn attended SDSU in the 1970s.

This means new and innovative ways to help these future students financially must be found. One way SDSU is preparing to do this is by committing $6 million annually over the next 10 years from land-grant land managed by the Office of South Dakota School and Public Lands. This amount will be matched by private gifts. Dunn says the resulting $12 million will be used to help ensure no one is left behind.

Given a Chance…

A generation from now, the last name of the sales representative pitching you seed may have the last name Driving Hawk. Or the agronomist advising you on whether to replant corn may be a Vasquez. Ditto for the farm employee helping you diagnose your data package whose surname may be Raengpradub.

The nation’s demographics are changing, and it will eventually include agriculture and rural areas hosting highly trained employees like these. Land-grant institutions like SDSU can help pave this path.

 “Given the chance, these young people can bloom and blossom and grow into productive and happy sons and daughters,” says Dunn. “We have to be ready to welcome them to this place.”


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