For students like Vanessa Gonzalez, the outlook for a future career in sustainability is bright.
Jobs in environmental science and other natural resource specialties are projected to grow rapidly over the next decade.
In response, community organizations like the Latino Center of the Midlands are helping prepare the next generation of food and agriculture leaders through on-the-job experience and mentorship opportunities.
Gonzalez was one of 20 student interns who participated in the inaugural Latino Center Siembra Raíces (Growing Roots) internship program made possible by local partners including FCSAmerica.
The program provides high school and college students paid internship experiences in the agriculture industry, both in urban and rural settings, and places interns with an outdoor organization that aligns with their career interests.
Activating careers in agriculture
During the summer of 2020, Gonzalez and her intern cohort worked with The Big Garden, a network of more than 200 community gardens in metro-Omaha and rural and semi-rural communities in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas.
“Working with The Big Garden we learned about different vegetable production methods by getting hands-on experience planting, wedding, watering and eventually harvesting the produce we grew,” says Gonzalez.
“I gained a better understanding of gardening, preservation and food security, and the experience helped me grow personally through interaction with my coworkers and other professionals.”
– Vanessa Gonzalez
In addition to the agriculture education component of Siembra Raíces, all of the produce grown was donated to families in need through food pantries and produce give aways in food insecure neighborhoods.
The experience inspired Gonzalez to apply for the Siembra Raíces internship program for a second year and sparked her interest in exploring horticulture or environmental science as a career pathway.
“For my second internship I was placed with Fontenelle Forest where we learned about land stewardship including practices like brush piling and prescribed burning,” she says. “We also assisted with trail maintenance, brush cutting and treating invasive species.”
Gonzalez shares that her favorite experience working with Fontenelle Forest was participating in a butterfly walk where she learned about how conservationists use different survey techniques to collect data and protect butterfly species.
“It was really cool to get exposure to a different side of conservation, ask questions and learn more about what it takes to get into this kind of work,” she says. “Nothing is set in stone yet, but for my future career I’m interested in research, consulting and land surveying.”
Gonzalez was also one of four interns invited to participate in a job shadow opportunity with FCSAmerica.
“As part of the experience, we volunteered with Food Bank for the Heartland alongside FCSAmerica team members. We got to connect with professionals, experience their work culture and learn about different jobs available in environmental science all while supporting a good cause,” she says.
Gonzalez is currently a freshman at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) where she is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in environmental science.