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The importance of first-hand experience

Somewhere between the steamy, tropical lowlands and the lush, terraced hillsides of Guatemala, CALS students learned about more than just the tropical plant diseases they had come to study.

“I saw agriculture on an unbelievably large scale, and I saw first-hand the human labor that goes into it,” recalls Courtney Jahn, a plant pathology graduate student originally from Black Earth, Wis. “For me, it shows me how we all need to think about where what we consume comes from. I will never think about sugar the same way again.”

And it’s just that sort of insight that plant pathology professors Doug Maxwell and Caitilyn Allen, who also has an appointment in the women’s studies program, wanted their students to gain from the class, which presented tropical plant pathology topics in a seminar-style format during the fall semester of 2005 and culminated in a field trip to Guatemala over winter break.

“People drink coffee and eat melon, but often don’t have any idea what it took in terms of social structure to produce those products,” Maxwell explains. “For example, in Guatemala, more than seventy percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day. There are serious plant diseases but no extension services, no information. Students come away with a new perspective after seeing these things first hand.”

Maxwell studies plant viruses, particularly geminiviruses, which can devastate crops in tropical countries. Allen concentrates on bacterial diseases such as bacterial wilt, which also profoundly affect agricultural output. Both are interested in developing resistant crop varieties, and Maxwell and Allen share USAID grants with numerous collaborators across the nation and the world to develop new lines of tomatoes.

In Madison, Allen and Maxwell built their class out of the strong international collaborations already in place between the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala, particularly with Luis Mejia, a professor of plant breeding. The partners won a USAID grant and matching support from the CALS division of international studies to fund reciprocal teaching between their institutions. Students from San Carlos visited Wisconsin in the summer of 2005 for workshops and agriculture tours, and in the winter of 2006 it was UW-Madison students’ turn to travel to Guatemala for their own educational experience.

During their time in Guatemala, Maxwell, Allen and their ten students saw the extremes of agriculture in a developing country. From small plots of traditional milpa – corn and beans grown together with other crops – to massive sugar plantations to vast ornamental plant operations, the group experienced agriculture in many forms. A visit to vegetable cooperative for Mayan farmers made a strong impression on many of the students, as did witnessing the brutal physical labor associated with harvesting sugar cane in particular.

“International experiences can be formative,” Allen says. “An experience like this might make someone think about working outside of our country. We Americans have the benefit of education and training, but also obligations to share that expertise.”