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FIRST ANNUAL FEDERAL FOCUS ED-MENTOR SYMPOSIUM
CHARLES W. LAUGHLIN
Mr. Charles W. Laughlin is the Administrator, United States Department of Agriculture, Cooperative Research, Education, and Extension Service, Office of the Administrator.
I appreciate your patience in giving me a few moments to talk about some of the educational programs that are going on in our agency. Maybe even to think with you, use your energy, in how might we involve electronic mentoring as an important part as we look toward the future. One of the questions that often gets asked, "Why would anybody from Agriculture come up here and talk about education?" However, I like to put it in a context, not that 2% of the people in America provide food for the people in the U.S., but in a context that everybody in the world eats. If one looks at the kinds of demographic challenges, and environmental challenges, it will take a very highly educated, professional group to be able to address that.
The mission area that we are in within the USDA is called Research, Education and Economics. The unit that I work specifically with is called the Cooperative States Research, Education and Extension Service. Let me talk a bit about those because two of those are very much involved in education - one in the traditional sense land grant universities. Those are those public universities which have their origin back to about 1862, with the first act that created these universities. They are now the Michigan States, the Pennsylvania States, the Texas A&Ms, the University of Georgia, the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, and all of those. That is the first thing that comes to mind; but, that is only a small part of the partnership that is involved. We are also involved with the 1890 institutions. The 1890 institutions are those traditionally black public universities. In addition, we link with Tuskegee University. Another member of the partnership that we work with are the 1994 institutions. These are the tribal colleges. We also have the Hispanic serving institutions that we link with. What is superimposed over all of this is that the functional components of these, which would be the teaching, the research and the extension or outreach. How do we link with those? In additional functions that we are involved with is National Research Initiative Program. But, more importantly, programs that deal with communities, families and youth development. I think that we have a program that has a long history going back at least to 1914, and it is called 4-H. If one looks at 4-H, it is truly a mentoring program. It is a mentoring program which has at its very core volunteerism. The mentors are on a volunteer basis, and it is the interaction of youth with these volunteers which we hope creates the next generation of people who understand the agricultural, natural resources, sustainability, all of those issues brought together.
We have some very distinct academic programs within the agency. One deals with K through 12; it is called Agriculture in the Classroom. It is a program that brings together to introduce people in the grade schools through high school - actually starting in kindergarten - on what agriculture and the related areas are all about. We also have programs that deal in the multicultural areas, in multicultural scholars. We have an Hispanic serving grants program. We have Tribal College Endowment that we work with, and Tribal College Equity programs. Coming from Hawaii, one understands why it is important that we have ways to be electronically connected. It is not that we are so isolated; it is just that the water boulevards between the mainland and Hawaii, or between the other members of the Pacific and Hawaii, or out in the Caribbean get a little broad at times. We must ask, "How do we better connect with those?"
One of the things we had been working very hard on in Hawaii is that we have several different nations that used to be trust territories in some configuration. We have Northern Marianus, Guam, Micronesia. And in Micronesia there are three different academic programs, three different community colleges at work, in addition to American Samoa. Then we have the linkage with the Federated States of the Pacific, which is housed in Fiji, and the 21 countries that they have. You get a great deal of movement of students between these, but how do prepare the student? How do you let that student know that when he or she is coming from Palao to the University of Hawaii and Minoa, there will be a very significant change? Do I have someone who understands me and is willing to work with me? So, one of the things we have done in the last year to help build this mentoring program is to use a system called PicturTel. We have linked with the medical facilities that are scattered around the islands, rather than by satellite we are using telephone connections. This means then that Dr. O'Neill and I can be in two places, 7,000 or 10,000 miles apart, and it is not like the martial art movies in which I would speak, and a few seconds later the voice would emerge for Dr. O'Neill to hear me. The communication is simultaneous. Not only can I see him, but also I have a face to which I can relate; I have started a conversation and a dialogue, so that the next time we are together, I have someone with whom I have begun to build trust. I think this is one of the most critical issues in a mentoring relationship, the issue of trust or being sure that the person on the other end of the wire is someone with whom I can really work.
Not only has this worked from a standpoint of student-to-student, faculty-to-student, faculty-to-faculty, but also another thing has occurred. Because these are emerging nations and emerging institutions in the ability to have individuals who are involved in leadership and administration able to interact with their counterparts, I think this is just the veneer of what our agency might be able to be involved with in these areas.
I am sure that many of you in your leadership roles in electronic mentoring - indeed, the whole application of electronic systems - run into the sentence, "But that is not the way we have done this before!" Or perhaps, "That just is not going to work. That is for someone else to do." I think part of this is that people do not fully appreciate just how rapidly all these changes are occurring that you are at the vanguard of. Recently I was talking with a friend of mine who is a futurist. I always worry a little bit about futurists. My friend was telling me that every 15 seconds there is a new technology developing somewhere in the world. How might one of the four that will emerge in the next minute impact what we are all about? Somewhere in the neighborhood of three new food products are developed every minute worldwide. I think two things that will have a marked impact on electronic mentoring is that every job will be redescribed in the next 20 years; but, more importantly, the students who are in university right now will have at least 7 distinct career paths.
Where were you 30 years ago when I was Assistant Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, trying to build mentoring activities within our student body? Some of you were probably just a gleam in someone's eye. Anyhow … what you are doing is truly vanguard type of activity. I look forward, as will Dr. Gonzales, to watch, learn and listen from you as you move forward. So, thank you so very much for this opportunity to share just a few moments with you. Thank you.