Lay of the Land: Scholar finds solid ground through summer language programs

Picture this. The temperature outside is a scorching 120 degrees but the house you are living in has no air conditioning. You take a shower on a hot summer day, step foot outside, and immediately start dripping in sweat.

Abe DeHart doesn’t have to try hard to imagine what that would be like. He lived it while studying abroad in India during what turned out to be the hottest summer in 65 years.

“I think it’s cool how you don’t just adapt to the culture but your body adapts to the environment without even realizing it,” said DeHart, a senior in the Schreyer Honors College majoring in agricultural systems management in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

DeHart found himself in Lucknow, India, courtesy of the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship Program. It was his second summer participating in the program in North India.

“My dad was born in Pakistan and lived there until he was 18,” DeHart said. “This was one of the factors why I wanted to go to Lucknow and learn Urdu. I’m learning Urdu because I want to work with farmers in Southeast Asia either in Pakistan or India. When you’re trying to gain the trust of farmers, it’s important that you speak the same language that they do.”

DeHart’s future plans hinge on his ability to communicate with the region’s farmers. His goal is to help Southeast Asian farmers better manage the land for greater yields in food production.

“The U.S. government is really interested in people working in Pakistan,” DeHart said. “They are very focused on food security, which is basically the idea that if people are well fed, they will be more satisfied and less desperate. The U.S. government is doing a lot of work with trying to make sure people are well fed, and farmers are able to provide for themselves.

“I want to be able to practically help farmers. When I went to India, I was able to interview farmers and find out what solutions they envision. With the research I’ve done, I now have a better sense of what the problems actually are, whether it’s a problem of irrigation or maybe they can’t sell their products at the market since it’s too far away. I can go back and help them in the future.”

One of things he was surprised by in Lucknow was the lack of farming machinery and power equipment.

“It’s really incredible to see what we take for granted,” DeHart said. “Everything that we do with machinery here, they do by hand. People were planting rice by hand, weeding by hand and even plowing using bulls rather than tractors. I was under the impression that if they’re doing this all by hand they probably won’t be happy. However, I was really surprised by how happy and hospitable they were.”

DeHart expected the landscape to be barren but was amazed by how it was reminiscent of the U.S. Midwest.

“I was so surprised by how green everything was,” DeHart said. “I was expecting dry landscapes because the agricultural techniques are significantly different there, but the landscapes were so beautiful. Sometimes you would even think you were out in the Midwest or even western Pennsylvania. There wasn’t a lot of trash around in most places. It was a vivid, tropical green. A lot of the land is irrigated with groundwater. It really is beautiful.”

In addition to being able to speak the language, DeHart also was able to relate to the economics of farming. DeHart has a landscaping business back home in Philadelphia that he started when he was 12.

“I have two employees and about 60 clients,” he said. “I applied the business concepts I learned here to the situation in India. A lot of people feel that the people over there are different from here. I find that the Indian farmers are very similar to the farmers here in Pennsylvania. Being able to communicate well with farmers here helped me to communicate with farmers there. People felt comfortable sharing their problems with me as they do here.”

Back on campus, DeHart also has been working as an emergency medical technician for the University Ambulance Service since his freshman year. Outside of the classroom, DeHart is active in various organizations. He is the vice president of the International Agriculture Club and teaches English classes for International Ministries.

“I really enjoying teaching English because it gives me more opportunities to talk to people from other cultures,” said DeHart. “It’s so cool to be able to talk to people who are from other countries.”

He also has been leading a Bible study for agricultural students since sophomore year.

“My faith is a big part of my life,” said DeHart. “It’s integrated with all my goals. Helping people is a big part of that and why I choose to do the things I do.”

“The sky is the limit for Abe,” said Ruth Mendum, director of the University Fellowships Office. “He’s very self-reflective. He’s constantly refining what he’s doing and where he’s going. That means that every time I meet with him, his plan has gotten that much better, sophisticated and informed. He has real leadership material.”

After graduation, DeHart plans to pursue a master of business administration degree with a focus in supply chain management at Penn State. He wants to take the business skills, experience, and connections that he gains and apply them to an agriculture-based organization working in the developing world. 

“I would also be interested in working for a nongovernmental organization,” DeHart said. “I would like to be doing work that allows me to interact with farmers on a regular basis.”

In 10 years, DeHart sees himself as the head of an organization doing agricultural work in the developing world.

“I see my organization affecting the lives of thousands of families and giving them the tools that allow them to pull themselves out of poverty,” said DeHart.

“Abe’s future looks very bright,” said Thomas Gill, assistant professor of international agriculture. “He can do anything he wants if he puts his mind and heart to it. Success to him is making an impact and being content that he is making a difference.”

Which may be why DeHart has found himself far from home the past two summers building the skills and learning a language that is getting him ready for the future.

“When you’re presented with a cool opportunity, go for it,” DeHart said. “Don’t hesitate. Do what you’re passionate about. If you think you should do it, just go for it.”

And, for someone like DeHart, if you end up in a place where the daytime high is 120 degrees, don’t sweat it. You’ll be ready to take the heat.

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Last Updated May 06, 2014