The Strawberry Academy
Empowering student employees to be Ready Day One
Graduate student Anthony Bella has deep ties to agriculture but knows that there is always more to learn. As an undergraduate studying agricultural science, he joined the Cal Poly Strawberry Center as a student employee and nearly three years later said there isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t learn something new.
What we do at the Strawberry Center directly impacts the industry while providing a great experience and exposure that helps us transition from being in class to a career.
— Anthony Bella, student employee at the Strawberry Center
Bella is one of about 30 students who work for the Strawberry Center each year, gaining exposure to both day-to-day operations and research focused on improving the California strawberry industry, which produces more than 90% of strawberries in the country. Last year the center launched a student workforce readiness program called the Strawberry Academy to increase its offerings to students.
The three-tiered program encourages students to progress from beginner to intermediate and advanced levels, while gaining proficiencies such as public speaking, mentoring skills and the ability to understand and communicate the positive social and environmental responsibilities of today’s agriculturalists, that will benefit them in their future careers. In addition, a partnership with Cal Poly’s Career Services offers workshops in resume writing, conducting interviews and other practical skills. As students advance, they are rewarded with incremental pay increases, swag such as branded hats and T-shirts and tools that will help them in the field such as a professional strawberry field kit and a compendium of strawberry diseases book.
“We worked directly with our industry advisors and recent graduates to determine what skills and qualities will help our student employees succeed after they graduate,” said Drew Summerfield, who oversees the program in addition to managing the campus strawberry farm. “Learning how to be a leader, work hard and to show up on time and for each other are skills that are as important in the industry as knowing how to identify pests in the field.”
Bella, who is pursuing a master’s degree in agriculture, specializing in crop science, said that he wanted a job that would expose him to the various aspects of agriculture. “It is pretty rare that as a student you get the opportunity to work side by side with both the research manager and the operations manager,” Bella said. “The program opens a lot of excellent experiences for students, while exposing us to current research that will directly impact the strawberry industry such as cultivars that are resistant to diseases and the production side of operating a farm. Everything is done in a way that gives us a learning opportunity. The faculty and staff make sure we know exactly why we are doing what we are doing.”
Students are encouraged to pursue opportunities in the pathways that interest them, with research opportunities in pathology and entomology always available. They are also learning how to navigate future career opportunities. “We want our students to learn to advocate for themselves in the industry,” said Summerfield. “But every student working here should also know how to pick and pack a clamshell. This is a yeararound operation and our students ensure it operates smoothly.”
When industry representatives visit Cal Poly to tour the Strawberry Center, it is students who guide them. “Working here and communicating with growers and other graduate students and co-workers has prepared me extremely well for what is to come in the industry,” Bella said. “Everything we do is pretty incredible and important, as the state’s strawberry crop is valued at about $3 billion a year. What we do at the Strawberry Center directly impacts the industry while providing a great experience and exposure that helps us transition from being in class to a career.”
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