Penn State junior continues family’s legacy with agricultural advocacy

Trae Hawkins
November 05, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Growing up on her family’s Bicentennial Farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Samantha Shirk’s life has always been rooted in agriculture.

“I was fortunate to be born into an agricultural family,” said Shirk, whose parents have careers in agriculture — her father as a regional salesman for the poultry industry and her mother a client relations manager for Penn State Extension. “My parents and grandparents are proud to work in agriculture, and their passion was passed on to me.”

Yet, as a rising high school senior in 2016, she was not sure if agriculture was the right fit for her when contemplating her future. To help her decide, her parents encouraged her to take part in the Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences at Penn State, formerly known as the Governor’s School.

The program, under the College of Agricultural Sciences, offers high school students a chance to spend four weeks at the University Park campus, where they explore college life and the diverse fields of agricultural science and natural resources.

“My father was a student in the program in 1987, so I wanted to follow in his footsteps and see how I could benefit,” said Shirk, whose father and grandfather both are Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences alumni.

The experience opened her up to what she described as Penn State’s impressive agricultural sciences program and confirmed that Penn State was where she wanted to be.

“I highly encourage high school students interested in the agricultural sciences to look into the Pennsylvania School for Excellence in Agricultural Sciences,” she said. “It is the reason I am at Penn State today.”

Now as a junior and a third-generation Penn Stater majoring in agricultural science, Shirk participates in many activities, including serving as a program assistant for two years for the School for Excellence, where she works under the supervision of Jenneth Layaou, director of campus enrollment and retention for the college, who oversees the program.

Shirk helps to arrange the four-week program schedule, plans logistics, meals and activities for participants, and assists with supervising a team of mentors. She also helps to coordinate the Pennsylvania Youth Institute, sponsored by the World Food Prize, a partner of the School for Excellence.

School for Excellence staff

Pennsylvania School for Excellence in the Agricultural Sciences staff for 2019, from left: Brittany Chapman, Justin Kurtz, Dana Carrato, Mitchell Valentin, Tracy Hoover, Jenneth Layaou, Samantha Shirk, Ashtyn Moore, Ayla Blatt and Gabrielle Henrichs.

IMAGE: Penn State

“I am grateful to Jenneth for the opportunity to give back to the program that kickstarted my career at Penn State,” Shirk said. “It has helped me to find my passion for promoting agriculture and interacting with prospective students.”

As a member of an elite group of undergraduate students known as Ag Advocates, Shirk serves as an ambassador for the college, building positive relationships with prospective students, alumni and industry professionals. Members also support the college’s efforts to raise awareness of educational and career opportunities in the food, agricultural and natural resource sciences.

Perhaps the most impactful of her pursuits has been with the Poultry Science Club, for which she serves as the secretary and organizes club events. The experiences with the club led her to hatch a new plan for her studies, adding minors in poultry and avian science and in agricultural communications.

Through the club, she attended the annual International Production and Processing Exposition, the largest poultry expo in the world, which is held in Atlanta, Georgia. There, she networked with industry leaders and was offered an internship with Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Michigan, one of the largest cage-free egg producers in the U.S.

While at Herbruck’s this past summer, she worked through the entire process of a large-scale egg operation to understand the science behind the systems. She helped to take care of chicks to ensure their optimal health and growth, and she eventually worked with hens to see the cycle of an egg from the time it is laid until it is gathered, washed and packaged.

“You really start to appreciate how much these people do,” Shirk said. Seeing the process firsthand gave Shirk a deeper respect for the people who work in the poultry industry. From farm to table, poultry industry employees work tirelessly to ensure that people have the best possible food, she noted.

She said despite this, the public sometimes has misconceptions about agriculture, especially regarding the poultry industry. Dispelling these notions is one of her goals as she plans to focus on the communications or the public relations/marketing side of the industry.

Shirk wants to concentrate her career on educating people about the importance of the poultry industry and agriculture. Without agriculture, she said, people would not have food.

Spurred by her family’s agricultural history and inspired by the opportunities that Penn State has provided to her, Shirk believes she has the technical and leadership skills necessary to navigate her way through the agriculture industry.

“Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences has really opened a lot of doors for me, so the possibilities are endless,” she said.

  • Ad Advocates with Sam Shirk

    Samantha Shirk is a member of the Ag Advocates, an elite group of undergraduate students who are ambassadors for the College of Agricultural Sciences. 

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 05, 2019