Pandemic brings trials and triumphs for ag students

Despite the difficult launch to their careers in the industry, students see bright future ahead

Brianna Dyck was supposed to be celebrating her college convocation the first weekend in June.

But with post-secondary institutions shuttered by the pandemic, graduation was a small family affair.

Brianna Dyck.
photo: Supplied

“My family has done a great job of trying to make it a big deal, but it feels like the school year should still be going — there was no real mark to end it,” said the Olds College grad. “It was pretty weird.”

That pretty much sums up the last two months for thousands of post-secondary students across Alberta — an anticlimactic end to a school year unlike any other.

The spring semester was already winding down when a provincial public health emergency was declared March 17, but Alberta’s ag colleges and universities wasted no time coming up with a plan to deliver programs and services online.

“The amazing part for me was how quickly we were able to transition on and how relatively few problems we had once we were online,” said Geoff Brown, associate dean of agriculture sciences at Lakeland College.

“The time of year was helpful because we had covered off most of the competencies — there was only about a month of classes left. It was really just a matter of wrapping up.”

For Dyck, finishing her two-year diploma, the shift was “a struggle, but it wasn’t unbearable.”

“It wasn’t that bad. It was just weird for everybody,” she said with a laugh. “Our teachers were really good at managing it, so honestly, it didn’t really change that much, other than having no more in-class time.”

Online learning challenges

Julia McCrae.
photo: Supplied

For others, like Julia McCrae, the transition was a little harder.

“I’m definitely much more of an in-person learner — I learn better if I’m able to converse,” said McCrae, who is going into her final year of a post-diploma agribusiness program at the University of Lethbridge.

“I find that, when you go in and have a conversation with a professor, it’s easier to get help. You can explain it better. So I found it was harder to get help at times.”

Students whose programs rely on labs and hands-on learning also struggled with the change.

“It was pretty tough,” said Karson Gridley, who just finished her first year in Lakeland’s crop technology program.

Karson Gridley.
photo: Supplied

“It’s hard to do things online when they’re meant to be hands on, so it was difficult for a while, but toward the end, it got easier. I definitely wouldn’t want to have that as my full-time schooling, but for a month or two, it was OK.”

And for a rare few, the move to online learning was a blessing in disguise thanks to open-book exams and reduced coursework.

“I was actually one of the very, very few students where going online actually made school for me easier,” said Emmett Sawyer, who is heading into his third year in the agricultural enterprise management program at the University of Lethbridge.

“Because school went online right at the end of the semester, I moved back home and pretty much started to work on the farm. Thank goodness most of my lectures were recorded, so I’d go work for the day and then when I’d get home in the evenings, I’d watch my lectures and take some notes.

“I would say I’m that one per cent where I was almost thankful for this for happening because it made schooling a little bit easier for me.”

Summer job hunting

Sawyer also had good luck with his summer job hunt. He was offered a summer sales position in November, so he had a job waiting for him at Corteva when the pandemic hit.

Emmett Sawyer.
photo: Supplied

“I still had a job once all these COVID restrictions were put in place, so I was super thankful for that,” said Sawyer.

“Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. Some of the internships they had with more agriculture-based accounting firms, for instance, didn’t happen when they had finished off this year.”

But on the production side at least, students haven’t struggled to find positions as much as anticipated, given that the unemployment rate nationally has soared to 40 per cent among students.

“A lot of those jobs really didn’t go away,” said Brown. “I was expecting it to be a lot worse, but a lot of our students are working, whether back on the farm or for some of these companies.”

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Hand over wheat field in early summer evening.

For Dyck, who comes from Calgary, finding a job as a newcomer to the industry was “a challenge.”

“I don’t come from a farm, so I didn’t have a job on the farm to go back to once school was over,” she said. “A lot of the students in our program were lucky that way — they could just go back to the farm and work with their parents.”

When the pandemic first hit, a lot of operations and businesses stopped posting jobs, and among those hiring, online interviews were the order of the day.

“One of my interviews was over Zoom, and that’s got to be the weirdest thing I’ve ever done — have a job interview over Zoom,” Dyck said with a laugh. “Their cameras weren’t working, so they could see me, but I couldn’t see them. It was super, super weird.”

Luckily, she was hired full time at an elk ranch at the end of May thanks to some successful networking.

“Through this, it’s definitely been all about who you know, not what you know, for finding jobs,” said Dyck. “That’s definitely been a struggle for students like me who don’t have a big foot in the door in the agriculture industry.”

But even for students who have grown up in the ag community, the pandemic is chipping away at their ability to meet people and build relationships.

“The biggest thing is that people want to network — they want to be connected, they want to be in the community,” said McCrae, who is president of the agriculture club at the University of Lethbridge. “I think that is going to be the key more than anything that students are missing. Finding a way to connect students with industry and with each other is going to be a new challenge.”

Michael Frankiw, who’s going back to Olds College in the fall to finish his agricultural management diploma, has already seen that shift in his second summer working with Richardson Pioneer.

“Last year when I was there, there was a lot more interaction with the farmers, and that’s one of the main things within the agricultural sector — that feeling of community and belonging with everybody else,” said Frankiw.

“Not being able to build relationships with farmers and the agricultural community really stunts your ability to grow within the industry right off the bat.”

More uncertainty ahead

And although Frankiw grew up on a farm, the pandemic has changed his view of what working in the industry will be like once he’s done school.

“Even if the world says it’s going to go back to normal, there is no going back to normal after this,” he said. “We’re going to live in a post-COVID era, and it’s going to be different.”

What that will look like is anyone’s guess, but ag colleges and universities are doing what they can to prepare for it.

“There’s a lot of concern about how the fall’s going to go this year,” said Brown. “If we’re able to do face to face, we’re fully prepared to deliver that way, but that doesn’t look very likely. We’re hoping fully online delivery doesn’t have to happen, but we’re prepared for that scenario.”

He said a blended model at Lakeland is more likely for the fall, although institutions like the University of Lethbridge have already announced that their fall semester will be primarily online.

“We’re such a hands-on school — that’s really why students come here — so the big worry is that the impact will be a lot bigger in the fall,” said Brown.

College officials are looking for ways to develop hands-on competencies.

“COVID is certainly a challenge, but I think agriculture is fraught with these kinds of challenges that can really impact and disrupt business,” he said. “It’s all just about being nimble and adaptable and flexible — figuring out how we can still get the job done with different restrictions in place.”

For Sawyer, this ‘get-’er-done’ approach to the pandemic is one of the reasons he’s excited about his future in the agriculture industry.

“This just further enriches my confidence in the industry — it’s really demonstrated how resilient agriculture is,” he said.

“We’ve seen so many different businesses and industries come to a complete and utter standstill because they haven’t been able to serve people. But agriculture is one of the industries where, despite having a worldwide pandemic, we still have to get the crop in the ground, we still have to feed cattle.

“It’s really proven to me how important it is to have a career in agriculture.”

Dyck agrees.

“There will always be hungry people,” she said. “This industry might face challenges, but people will always need to eat and farmers will always be working to feed them.

“And there’s nothing I would rather do.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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