100K Strong Grant Winner Goes Bananas for a Combination of Crop Science, Study Abroad and Social Entrepreneurship

Lee Tablewski, Director, 100,000 Strong for the Americas Innovation Fund

A unique partnership among North Carolina State University, the University of Costa Rica and Chiquita Brands has come together and won a grant during the recently completed Santander Round of the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund.

Like many successful educational partnerships built during Partners of the Americas' first 50 years, the catalyst has been one hard-working, educational social entrepreneur, Dr. Lori J. Unruh Snyder, Associate Professor and Undergraduate Teaching Coordinator at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University. Lori partnered with the Study of Abroad office to submit the 100K Strong grant titled, “Cultivating Study Abroad in Underrepresented Agriculture Disciplines”, to broaden the possibilities for agricultural majors least represented in international course exchanges.

The reality is Lori still is the adventure-loving, ambitious, self-motivated maverick she became growing up on a dairy farm. She has taken her passion for plant science and her agricultural livelihood and made it her profession.  Her career focuses on crop science education and social entrepreneurship, especially in Central America, and has been traveling and studying abroad since the age of 14.

The review committee that selected the proposal to be a winner was particularly impressed with the role that university-private partnership plays in this unique initiative.  Chiquita Brands, now headquartered in North Carolina, is central to her study abroad project, as well as, the local Costa Rican communities. Lori was an empowering agent for them to start their own social entrepreneurial business found on the People First Tourism website of NC State.  As an example, Lori wants to take her NC State students to visit Cinco Ceibas Rainforest Reserve and Adventure Park, the location of a past service project conducted by her Purdue students, where Lori photographed and instructed her students on how to write a guidebook after identifying key plant species found on a 1.5-mile boardwalk, which opened in 2013.  Lori explained it would be important to show the class of 2015 what other students have published and accomplished during a short-term study abroad experience. “The students will experience first-hand how a mobile classroom demonstrates how university-private partnerships aids in their professional development."

“Chiquita is more than a letter of endorsement for our grant proposal with the University of Costa Rica; they have been a full partner since the beginning,” Lori related while attending the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Capacity Building Workshop in San Diego May 25-26.  She sees her mission not only to mentor students but also to mentor and encourage other faculty to go internationally earlier in their careers as “ambassadors of agriculture.”  During her visit in San Diego, Chiquita sent a student intern to participate with Lori who recently traveled with her to Honduras. The intern shared with attendees how important mentorship with Dr. Snyder was to her. She was thankful for the student mobility that Chiquita was providing her, especially the opportunities of job training with the academic mentor.

And Lori sees the partnership with Chiquita an opportunity to share an academic perspective and to also gain an opportunity to share with her students the importance of developing corporate business skills needed for the workforce.

“I like to connect the dots in new ways; however, I think it is so important to maintain your international networks even if it is keeping a list of those with whom you visited during your first international travel course. To reconnect with those I met during my college years has provided professional career dividends and has enabled me with quick mobility to enhance and to move forward partnerships with companies and organizations that work in Central America.”

When she was traveling to Honduras during one of her first visits with her alma mater, Cornell University, she had the chance to interview a few Chiquita employees’ wives. Lori described how excited the women were to share their knowledge of medicinal plants in their gardens and how this started her passion for learning more about tropical plants and their uses.

“My first walk within a banana plantation was a Chiquita farm. Having grown up on a farm in Delaware, I quickly recognized their best management practices preventing soil erosion and how important preserving their natural resources were to them, as it has been to my family's mission being stewards of the land.  Within this past year, I have been able to connect NC State students to visit farms in Costa Rica and to teach them about the importance of companies having projects related to social corporate responsibility. I am happy to reconnect with Chiquita today.  As we work together, confidence is growing amongst all of us.”

Like many Partners members and other experts, Lori sees an acute need for individuals with international experience in government and the private and voluntary sectors.  In his letter of support for the NC State proposal, Executive Vice President of Chiquita Brands, Manuel Rodriguez, echoed her belief. “We hope that NC State will be a long-term resource for us as we develop our workforce. As a company, we highly value students trained in sustainability and that have international experience.”  According to Lori and her partners, the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund grant will enable NC State to leverage critical resources in building academic/private sector partnerships to address workforce needs.

Her life experiences studying abroad underlie her message today to her students. 

“I tell my students that study abroad will be the signature unique experience you can talk about for the rest of your life. And I ask them, ‘Are you ready for an adventure, the ultimate classroom lesson, a night hike in the jungle to hear sounds you don’t know and to see the primary forest biota of the night?  Standing in front of me with their night light headgear and all spotlights on me, I said to my students ‘I share with you the nightlife of our natural world.’”

The next project Lori hopes to launch?  A banana-flavored ice cream campaign on her campus called “100,000 Scoops” for 100,000 Strong in the Americas. The money she wants to raise through sales (or donations) would help increase awareness of the project, and student mobility. “I would like to offer purchase of the ice cream for special events with the money going to a scholarship fund to aid students to travel to the Americas,” she says, connecting the dots once again for social good and education.