Course empowers students from Penn State, Ukraine to act on food security

Amy Duke
June 09, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A virtual international agriculture course is helping students at both Penn State and Lviv Polytechnic National University in Lviv, Ukraine, grow a deeper understanding of local and global food security.

“Students may wonder how they can have an impact on such a large global issue as food security,” said course instructor Melanie Miller Foster, associate teaching professor of international agriculture in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “Many students are motivated to use their knowledge and skills to make a difference in the world but aren’t sure how to get started.”

Piloted in fall 2020, “INTAG 297: Taking Action on Food Security” was an outcome of a chance encounter between Miller Foster and Marichka Ruda of Lviv Polytechnic National University, in Lyubar, Ukraine, in May 2019.

Miller Foster’s purpose for visiting the city was twofold: She was on a quest to learn about her ancestral hometown while also building relationships related to her position in the college’s Office of International Programs.

During a stop at the city’s Heritage Park to discuss urban agriculture with a group of women, Miller Foster met Ruda. A fruitful discussion on a bounty of topics, including food security and digital pedagogy, ensued. They parted ways, but not before agreeing to collaborate on a course for students from both of their universities.

“Meeting Marichka was a happy accident because she wasn’t supposed to be at this gathering — the park manager asked her to help with translation because of her English skills,” Miller Foster said. “I love this tale because it’s a wonderful example of the need to keep your eyes open to opportunity, even when you aren’t expecting it.”

The challenges related to hosting a course with students from different countries, most notably language barriers and cultural differences, served as important lessons to expand the students’ empathy and cultural competency, she added.

This was especially true for the Penn State students who were not familiar with food security issues in Ukraine, which have been exacerbated by high levels of food insecurity among the elderly and in conflict-affected populations in eastern Ukraine.

“The students at Lviv brought their own set of skills and experiences to our classes that may never have been present otherwise,” said Brandon Bixler, an agricultural and extension education major who also is pursuing a minor in international agriculture. “They shared their experiences of living with the effects of armed conflict, which is something I have never lived through here in the U.S.”

The Ukrainian students also valued the cultural exchanges, noted Ruda, who admitted that she was concerned about how her students would fare in the course due to language divides and differences in educational styles.

“They were worried, but the process captured them,” she said. “And I saw that as something beautiful — they learned to be independent, they discovered something new, and they wanted to share it. The students in the program began to show more initiative. They saw that they could do a lot. I am proud of them, and I am infinitely grateful to Melanie for this experience.”

Students used virtual educational technologies that went beyond the standard online discussion forums. “One of the programs allowed them to answer discussion prompts using video,” Miller Foster said. “The students watched the videos repeatedly. The engagement was incredible.”

In addition to lessons on the four pillars of food security — availability, access, utilization and stability — Miller Foster helped the students build a project management skillset. The crux of the course focused on having the students make a positive contribution to food security in a community of their choice while keeping COVID-19 mitigation practices in mind. These projects ranged from volunteering on an urban farm to advocating for stronger government intervention.

“It’s important that we allow students to use their knowledge and skills in a real-world setting,” said Miller Foster. “They can discuss, reflect and learn from their action-taking experiences to prepare them to enter a workforce where they are expected to take action.”

For his project, Bixler, of East Earl, Pennsylvania, volunteered at a food and nutrition center in his hometown. He supported the “Buddy Bags” program, which provides food for elementary students over the weekends.

“I was able to make a difference in the lives of students who are attending the same elementary schools that I did,” said Bixler, who recently completed his first year at Penn State. “Food security needs come in many different forms, but the reality is that each of us is uniquely equipped to make a difference right where we are.”

Samantha Voytovych, a master's degree student studying environmental protection technology at Lviv Polytechnic, expressed her thoughts on food security through a performance video that she shared on social media. The song she wrote about food security resonated with her followers. Many told her that her message motivated them to donate to food pantries.

“A few more of my friends gave food to a shelter,” said Voytovych, who estimates that 500 people have viewed the video so far. “So, my project potentially has changed the thinking of those people. Some might think that to be a small number, but to me, it shows that a small project can bring great achievement.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 09, 2021