Graduate student pursues ag passion, receives scholarship
Melinda Sommer put a smile on her father's face when she professed that her dream was to pursue a career in agriculture. Now, a recipient of the Farmers Union Foundation Scholarship, the South Dakota State University student is continuing her edu...
Melinda Sommer put a smile on her father's face when she professed that her dream was to pursue a career in agriculture. Now, a recipient of the Farmers Union Foundation Scholarship, the South Dakota State University student is continuing her education in agriculture by working toward a master's degree and hands-on experience in every corner of the industry.
"I've always respected my dad and all the hard work he does," Sommer says. "He has taught me to be a hard worker. I also loved my agricultural background and wouldn't trade it for anything."
Sommer grew up on a farm in south-central Minnesota tending to her family's hog farm, which later turned to corn- and soybean-only. Her father pursued his own dream at the age of 16 by starting that farm and learning everything from the ground up, later passing along his knowledge and passion to his daughter.
Beginning with little tasks here and there, Sommer sought challenges on the farm as she grew older, becoming well-versed in every aspect of the business.
"I remember spending most of my summers as a young girl riding around with dad and helping him run errands," she says. "It was also my job to go rock-picking in the spring. As I've gotten older, I've moved on from rock-picking to combining, cultivating and other fieldwork as needed."
Her hard work and gumption helped her in making some important decisions that would later become part of her educational and professional success.
The big decision
After she received her father's blessing to move forward in an industry concerned by younger generation's declining interest, Sommer's choice in higher education was simple. She chose SDSU because of its strong agricultural program and location in a farming area with a small-town atmosphere.
But choosing the appropriate institution was just half the battle.
"At first I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do," Sommer says. "I wanted to farm, but I wasn't sure what my dad would think."
Guidance from her father and adviser helped Sommer declare a major in agricultural business and a minor in agronomy. She was encouraged to choose business because of the growth of larger operations, the decline in the number of farms across the nation and the importance of business management, she says. And as weed and insect problems rise on fields, agronomy has become an important topic of interest to Sommer and the industry.
Now, after receiving her bachelor's degree in May, the go-getter is on track to earn her master's degree through an accelerated program, on top of an assistantship position. Her latest degree will be in ag business and economics, though she's not certain what she will pursue specifically after graduation.
"Originally, I had not planned on getting a master's degree," Sommer says. "But everything just seemed to fall into place ... I'm not sure exactly what I will do with it yet. But I'm still looking for opportunities."
Though she is considering ag marketing or finance after graduation, her extended plan is to return to her parents' farm in Minnesota after gaining experience in the working world.
"I couldn't imagine working in any other industry but the ag industry," she says.
Throughout her life, Sommer has been involved with groups and organizations that promote her beloved industry.
She was involved in 4-H as a child and at SDSU, she became an ambassador for the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, taking on responsibilities to promote the school in the past two years.
"We would go visit high school agriculture and biology classes and promote SDSU on a completely volunteer basis by sharing our own personal college experiences," she says.
While she wasn't a seasoned public speaker, Sommer says her continued interaction with prospective students about the school and industry has made her more comfortable with it.
In addition to her ambassador role, she was also vice president of Alpha Zeta, an honors fraternity for ag students. The group frequently provided assistance to the community by coordinating fundraisers and offering support in times of need.
"We helped out with Ag Day on campus and got involved with other volunteer activities around Brookings," she says. "(That included) gathering Christmas gifts for the families of the cattle ranchers that were hit hard by an early blizzard last fall."
Goal-oriented, volunteer-focused and passionate about agriculture, Sommer knew when her adviser discussed the Farmers Union Scholarship with her that it was another opportunity worth investigating.
"I read through the requirements for the scholarship and was excited to find that it was specifically for ag students and those in related fields," she says. "I was not expecting to get the scholarship, but I applied anyway because I knew there was nothing to be gained by not trying."
The Farmers Union Scholarship is designed to retain talent in South Dakota in support of the state's agriculture industry. The scholarship is available to students in the state pursuing an ag-related degree such as animal science, business or education, in an accredited South Dakota school. And the winning student receives the $2,500 scholarship.
Though she knows some students dread the time it takes to fill out an application, solicit letters of recommendation and create a personal statement, Sommer insists it's worth every second to at least make an attempt. After all, she took a chance and won.
"It's been my experience that it's worth (applying for scholarships) because you may not get every scholarship, but the more you apply for, the more chances you have to get some much-needed money to pay for school," she says.
Sommer is thrilled to have been chosen for the scholarship, which will provide cushion in a world of growing educational costs. In addition, she has earned and assistantship through the economics department that pays her for 20 hours per week of research and assistant teaching for two of her professors, which also helps everyday costs of living.
She's proud to be a part of a global industry and feels fortunate for the opportunities it has awarded her.
"I'm very thankful for this scholarship and the foundation's commitment to and promotion of agricultural education, which is important to support a new generation of leaders in the ag industry," she says.
Promote and educate
With a degree and interest in some aspect of the business, students in agricultural programs have a variety of angles to choose from within the industry.
"There are many opportunities to support any number of varying interests, as long as you are willing to look for these opportunities and get your education," Sommer says. "The ag industry supports many jobs from finance and insurance to marketing, from actual production to education, and everything in between."
Ag supporters like Sommers know how important the industry is on a regional, national and global level, specifically its ability to supply food for friends, neighbors, and everyone in between. In order to continue the growth of the industry, she says it's important for agricultural professionals to be knowledgeable, passionate individuals so others can better understand the meaning and importance of agriculture.
"We need people to promote the industry and educate consumers," she says, encouraging young people to get into the physical aspect of farming and ranching. "They should get involved with organizations to promote agriculture, because the industry faces many challenges and will need a new generation to step up."