Lincoln, Neb. —Since its inception in 2017, Cultivate ACCESS has become a leading force in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives within the agricultural-STEM sector.
The Cultivate ACCESS program works to increase participation of underrepresented groups from Nebraska in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related agricultural careers. Through a holistic mentoring and development program, high school students are engaged with current industry professionals and university students.
"Cultivate ACCESS is an innovative pathway program designed to support Nebraska students from diverse backgrounds to discover agricultural career pathway possibilities and connect with mentors to support their discovery," said CASNR Dean Tiffany Heng-Moss.
"This strengthens Nebraska' capacity to be more inclusive and lead in preparing the next generation of emerging leaders in agriculture and diversity."
Comprised of faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students in CASNR, the Cultivate ACCESS leadership team’s passion for DEI in Ag-STEM did not pause during the global pandemic, but was further expanded through unique opportunities presented. While circumstances have impacted much of the operations of the Cultivate ACCESS program, the team took this opportunity to be creative to pivot, improve and further the program’s initiatives.
In the 2020-2021 cohort, two high school students still hoped to be involved in the mentoring program. Despite challenges brought on by the pandemic, they were paired with CASNR students ambassadors and career professionals. Recognizing the importance for intentional relationship building, the leadership team emphasized training for the college ambassadors to build an effective and strong connection in an online space.
Scholar, Julia Perez (right) meeting her Ambassador, Audrey Vega (left).
“We have gotten to know each other better over email,” said Julia Perez, a scholar studying at Omaha South High School, “Audrey (ambassador) and I have met up twice this semester, and it was very exciting for me because we have many things in common!”
UNL students are typically drawn to the Cultivate ACCESS ambassador program by the opportunity to make an impact on high school students. Audrey Vega, a senior biological systems engineering major, has similarly enjoyed getting to know her scholar, Perez and said she is excited to see how she grows both academically and personally as their relationship continues.
The 2020-2021 Ambassadors (Audrey Vega, Pascaline Niyonshuti, Aline Mwiza Uwashimimana, Laetitia Igiraneza Sinyigenga, Jay Cleveland, Jeannette Uzamukunda) in their virtual class last fall with members of the Leadership Team (Yi Xuen Tay, Taylor Nielsen, Olivia Drennon).
The six ambassadors were committed to a “project-based” role, where they engage remotely in projects that will further the mission of Cultivate ACCESS. Based on their interests, they were placed into several project teams that contributed to content development for diversity and inclusion in agriculture and natural resources, expansion and connection to Rwanda, social media and marketing, and scholar support.
“What I enjoy most about Cultivate ACCESS is the inclusive leadership practice that allows Ambassadors like myself to take part in decision making,” said Aline Mwiza Uwashimimana, a junior integrated sciences major, and Cultivate ACCESS ambassador.
“I have a say in what needs to be done in my role which improves my decision making and problem-solving skills, among others.”
Even though the program began with a desire to work with Nebraskan high school students, the leadership team has spent the past year exploring and expanding initiatives to a broader audience. The team received new funding through the CHS Foundation, where a group of 5 Nebraskan high school Agriculture and Science Educators were selected as CHS Diversity & Inclusion Fellows. In this online community of practice that began in March 2021, CHS Fellows will engage in a series of learning, activities and discussions that will encourage their self-development related to DEI, explore localized context of DEI at their institutions and increase awareness of Ag-STEM careers.
Recognizing parallels between the work of Cultivate ACCESS and the goals of the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (RICA) to increase participation of youth in Ag-STEM fields, an international collaboration began between the two groups to explore the creation of a similar Cultivate ACCESS program at an international location. A first group of five RICA students were just recently hired as Ambassadors to contribute to team’s efforts in Rwanda in the new project-based roles piloted by our UNL Ambassadors, and will begin engagement with UNL interns in the upcoming summer to explore both local and global extension in two locations.
The first group of CHS Fellows (Casey Carriker of Crete High School, Taylor Wilton-Cooper of Omaha Bryan High School and Jacob Hunter of North Scott High School) in their first gathering with members of the Leadership Team (Julie Obermeyer, Yi Xuen Tay, Jenny Keshwani and Deepak Keshwani). Not pictured: Dana Hall of McCool Junction High School and Nicole Sorensen of Minatare High School.
“The Cultivate ACCESS Team has truly enjoyed our journey together to better understand DEI in the context of food, agriculture, and natural resources,” said Dr. Jenny Keshwani, Principal Investigator of Cultivate ACCESS and Associate Professor in Biological Systems Engineering.
“We are thankful for the opportunities our team has received to share our knowledge and journey by leading DEI conversations with the larger IANR community.”
The CHS Foundation, funded by charitable gifts from CHS Inc., is focused on developing a new generation of agriculture leaders for life-long success. Together, with our partners, we are igniting innovation and driving excellence in agriculture education, cultivating high impact programs for rural youth and accelerating potential for careers in agriculture. Learn more at chsfoundation.org.