UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences understand the importance of cultivating fields and growing crops. One group, Students for Cultivating Change, recognizes the need to grow something more — inclusion and diversity — and generous support from MeeCee Baker, a respected alumna of the college, will help advance its cause.
Baker recently created a $20,000 endowment named the "Baker Students for Cultivating Change Award," which will be given to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in the College of Agricultural Sciences and have demonstrated advocacy for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Ally (LGBTQA) community at the University through active membership with the Students for Cultivating Change club or a similar organization. In addition, she pledged $1,000 a year for the next five years for immediate support of the award.
Students for Cultivating Change formed in 2016 to provide a safe, inclusive network for LGBTQA students interested in agricultural sciences. Focusing efforts in education, community and increasing awareness, they strive to promote inclusion and visibility for LGBTQA individuals within the College of Agricultural Sciences and larger Penn State community.
"I hope this gift lifts up Students for Cultivating Change and lets them know there are alumni and others who recognize they are a vital part of the agricultural industry and revel in their successes," said Baker, who earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural and extension education and a doctorate in agricultural education from Penn State. She also received a master's degree from the University of Delaware.
Baker, owner of Versant Strategies, a governmental relations firm working with agricultural, environmental and rural issues in Harrisburg, said that in addition to supporting the club, her gift serves as a tribute to Caleb Wright, Versant's chief operating officer.
"Caleb's been a wonderful addition to our staff and we are so impressed with him," she said. "I wanted to honor him, and since he's an active participant in the national Cultivating Change organization, I thought the support of Penn State's affiliated club would be appreciated."
Wright, who earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural and extension education from Penn State in 2014, noted that he is humbled to have Baker, his mentor, recognize him in such a meaningful way. He said he also feels it's important for the agricultural community to come together and support inclusion of the LGBTQA community, and that he is proud of Students for Cultivating Change.
While Wright served as the inspiration for her recent donation, at the heart of Baker's philanthropy are the lessons she learned while growing up on the family's farm in Juniata County, a place she still calls home. Charity and education were a central part of her upbringing.
"My mother used to say, 'When much is given, much will be expected.' Even when my parents struggled to pay their own bills, they secretly gave to neighbors in need," she said.
Baker said her parents emphasized the value of lifelong learning and believed one could see the world from a different view through education. Baker said her experiences as a student at Penn State proved that to be true, and she praised the College of Agricultural Sciences for serving as her "launching pad." The faculty made her believe in herself and became an extended family.
"It was what you might call 'providence' — my parents' legacy of charity and education and the brilliant gift of Caleb Wright all came together and served as the motivation for my endowment," she said. "It's especially important to me to support students and education, and I encourage others to do the same, no matter what amount."
Before joining Versant Strategies, Baker served in the executive office of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. She also was a faculty member at Penn State, an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University and the first woman elected as president of the National Association of Agricultural Educators. She has served on numerous advisory committees, including as a board member for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. She is a former president of the College of Agricultural Sciences Alumni Society.
"We are overwhelmed by Dr. Baker's remarkable gift to and support of Students for Cultivating Change," said Jenneth Layaou, club adviser and director of campus enrollment and retention for the College of Agricultural Sciences. "Her championing of our students' mission to promote inclusion, respect and acceptance in agriculture and beyond is inspirational and greatly appreciated."
Gifts from Penn State's alumni and friends have been essential to the success of the University's historic land-grant mission to serve the public good. To fulfill that mission for a new era of rapid change and global connections, the University has begun "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a fast-paced campaign focused on the three key imperatives of a public university. Private support will keep the door to higher education open and enable students to graduate on time and on track to success; create transformative experiences on Penn State campuses and around the globe that tap the full potential of Penn Staters to make a difference; and impact the world through discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more, visit http://giveto.psu.edu online.