Lonie becomes Penn State's 'advocate-in-chief' for ag education

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It would be difficult to find anyone with more enthusiasm for agriculture than Jean Lonie. And as she begins her role as the new director of student recruitment and activities in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, she hopes some of that zeal rubs off when she speaks with prospective students and their families about the myriad opportunities available in today's agriculture and related industries.

"There are such misconceptions about the word 'agriculture,'" Lonie said. "When you look at the college's 17 majors and 24 minors, there's amazing diversity."

Lonie comes to the college from Zoetis (formerly Pfizer Animal Health), the leading animal-health company in the world, where she worked with beef and dairy producers. Her wide-ranging career also features time in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture as director of communications and executive assistant to the secretary of agriculture; with the Philadelphia School District as agriculture career and technical education coordinator and onsite program administrator at W.B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences; and with Farm Journal Media in multiple marketing positions.

She also was a promotional Web specialist with the U.S. Holstein Association and a special projects coordinator for the American Mushroom Institute. Collectively, she explained, these positions have given her a broad appreciation for the many facets of the field.

She noted that attracting young people to the food, agricultural and natural resource sciences is a matter of helping students find their passion, showing them how it connects to the college's offerings, then helping them see the pathway that leads to a successful education and career.

"I love the college's slogan, 'Think AGain,' with the emphasis on ag, because that can be a starting point for a conversation," she said. "My message would be that no matter what your interests are, I guarantee there's a connection to agriculture."

Are you interested in business? "Major in agribusiness management and learn it in a hands-on way that focuses on agribusiness goods and services," she said.

Do you want to be an engineer? "Think about every piece of equipment, every farm structure and automation system, the bioenergy work that we're doing in the college -- all of that comes back to agricultural and biological engineering."

Do you care about global health crises? "Major in toxicology or in immunology and infectious disease and be part of the global solutions. My job is to help students make those connections and find their role."

Lonie perhaps is uniquely qualified to do just that. A native of Philadelphia with a nonfarm background, she attended W.B. Saul High School, a respected agricultural magnet school, where she was involved with FFA. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in general agriculture with a minor in agribusiness management from the University of Delaware and a master's of business administration from Eastern University.

Her foray into agriculture may have surprised her -- and her parents. "I never thought I'd have a career in agriculture," she recalled. "I loved sports and wanted to be an athletic trainer. It took some convincing for my parents to allow me to go to Saul, but once I got involved in FFA and attended the Governor's School for the Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, I was hooked and my entire trajectory changed."

She believes her background will help her relate to young people who may not have given agriculture a serious look. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the job market for college graduates in the food, agricultural and natural resource sciences is booming, a trend on which she plans to capitalize.

"According to USDA, there are about 54,000 annual openings in agriculture and related fields, and only about 29,000 graduates with ag degrees," she said. "To fill that gap, we need dynamic, engaged young people who can step into these roles. We can use the college as a conduit to show them it's about research, science, engineering and math, but it's also marketing, communications and law. It's about boots on the ground out in the watershed, it's about landscape design."

And it's about feeding a growing world population. "People often forget that only 2 percent of the U.S. population actively farms," Lonie pointed out. "Our history as the Farmers High School and the old Penn State motto, 'Making Life Better,' meet in this college -- and I'm incredibly proud of the work that is being done in the classroom, in the lab and across our 67 counties to support those who are, or who will be, on the front lines in the animal, plant and food sciences."

She cited rising interest in organic and locally produced food, health and nutrition, the environment and global food security as trends that have driven recent increases in enrollment at agricultural colleges. But, she contends, some old stereotypes persist, and agriculture needs cheerleaders -- a role she is delighted to fill.

"Not every student is going to major in the agricultural sciences, and I get that," she said. "But I want it to be an informed choice."

For more information about academic programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences, visit the college's website.

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Last Updated July 07, 2014