Johnson named recipient of Peace Corps' Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Award

Amy Duke
October 31, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Jacob Johnson, a doctoral candidate in forest resources and in international agriculture and development (INTAD) in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, has received a Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Award in recognition of his service to others.

The Coverdell program supports returned Peace Corps volunteers as they pursue their education at graduate schools around the country. In addition to receiving financial support, Coverdell Fellows work in underserved communities during their time in school, usually through a professional internship related to their field of study.

Johnson was recognized during an Oct. 17 ceremony at Penn State's University Park campus. He was one of eight Penn State students to be named to the program.

"Jacob is an asset to Penn State, the INTAD program, and the communities he has uplifted through his work," said Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of the college's Office of International Programs. "We congratulate him on his selection as a Coverdell Fellow and look forward to his continued contributions to our college and to the world."  

Johnson is a student in the college's INTAD dual-title degree program, which provides students with international perspectives and expertise to strengthen their primary graduate degree. He holds a bachelor's degree in environmental studies from Virginia Commonwealth University and a master's degree in crops and soils environmental science from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Johnson served as an agroforestry extension agent with the Peace Corps from February 2013 until May 2015. He was stationed in Zambia, where he implemented several projects, including the establishment of an agroforestry and gardening demonstration site. Working with local Zambian agriculture extension agents, Johnson also hosted a series of hands-on workshops teaching alternative, low-cost, village-appropriate methods of managing soil fertility.

"Challenges are part of everyday life in rural Zambia," Johnson said. "Although access to clean water and lack of infrastructure are daily issues, farmers are working hard for a better life."

The experience served as the catalyst for his doctoral research at Penn State, which explores the integration of multipurpose trees into farm-level aquaculture systems in northern regions of Zambia.

Specifically, Johnson believes the use of fast-growing, leguminous trees could be an effective strategy to increase nutrient inputs and fish outputs from smallholder ponds, thereby improving farm-system productivity. The trees also fix soil nitrogen, improve soil and water conservation, sequester carbon, and enhance biodiversity. In addition, farmers can harvest byproducts such as wood fuels and edible seeds.

"I strongly believe in the capacity of rural Zambians to overcome their own challenges," Johnson said. "This project will integrate farmers' perceptions and aspirations. It supports an ongoing effort to create sustainable food-security solutions in Zambia through farm-system integration and optimization."

To accomplish his goals, Johnson will leverage the relationships he has established with Penn State faculty and with extension agents and farmers in Zambia. He also plans to cultivate new partnerships with representatives at international research stations to gauge interest and availability of resources. He said the funding received from the Coverdell award will be important as he builds a research network.

A critical partner already on board is his faculty adviser, Michael Jacobson, professor of forest resources in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, a longtime champion of global engagement and a former Peace Corps volunteer.

"Jacob contacted me in November of 2014 about applying to Penn State's forestry program for his doctoral studies," said Jacobson, who leads the college's Ag2Africa programming. "At the time, Jacob was serving in the Peace Corps. Although it has been many years since our first conversation, Jacob has not wavered from his commitment to participating in international development."

Jacobson explained that to be a successful Peace Corps volunteer, one must be resourceful in the face of challenge, especially in overcoming culture and language barriers. Developing professional relationships requires significant patience and adaptability.

"Jacob has risen to that challenge and continues to demonstrate an outstanding work ethic and dedication to improving the world," he said. "He is a worthy recipient of the Coverdell recognition."

Johnson's experiences have enhanced classroom lessons in international agricultural development seminars, according to Melanie Miller-Foster, assistant professor of international agriculture in the Office of International Programs, who supported his nomination to the fellowship program.

"Jacob has a wealth of on-the-ground experiences that most of the other students do not have, so he can take a concept that is being presented in class and add a new perspective," she said. "And, there is a great deal of excitement about the potential impact of his research."

  • Jacob Johnson

    Jacob Johnson, a doctoral candidate in forest resources and in international agriculture and development at Penn State, has received a Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Award. 

    IMAGE: Courtesy Jacob Johnson

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 31, 2018