Agriculture, horticulture draw foreign students

Branden Peterson

After growing up on a 75-acre cattle farm 35 miles north of Helsinki, Finland, Ilkka Pekkala wanted to experience something different. So he ended up in the Midwest.

He battled hot days last summer in North Dakota farming fields, driving combines and semi-trailers, and devising plans to improve crop yields.

Pekkala said he does not mind the extremes of Midwestern living – sweating out the hot summer days and plodding through snow on his way to class. The way he sees it, it just comes with the experience.

“I came (to the United States) because I wanted to do something unusual, and to learn more English,” he said.

Pekkala is a student with Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee International, a University exchange program in which international students come to the United States to gain experience working in agriculture and horticulture.

Originally an exchange program between Minnesota and Sweden in 1949, MAST International has introduced more than 5,600 students to U.S. culture through the University and U.S. agricultural businesses.

Last year, more than 36 countries sent 250 students to the United States through the University’s MAST program.

Trainees spend as long as 18 months in the United States, split between agriculture and horticulture-based job placement. While experiencing American life, students also benefit from learning new methods and technologies in their fields of study.

Many trainees live with the American families with which they work, especially in rural areas.

After arriving in the United States, students participate in a three-day orientation to introduce important cross-cultural adjustments, typical U.S. safety rules and other regulations.

Students then travel to placements from ranches in California to crop fields in Maine for a six- to nine-month training period.

MAST organizers believe the exchange program’s unique melding of both practical and academic experiences keeps students interested.

“The true ideal of the program is an exchange,” said Steve Jones, the director of MAST International.

“It’s unique in that there are a number of practical exchanges that exist in the U.S. But here at the MAST program is the only one that provides the practical and academic experience in the same program,” he said.

“So yes, they’re here, and they’re learning and getting new skills and abilities, but they’re also sharing their ideas and their experiences with their host,” he said.

Placements are determined by a student’s interests. Depending on the careers they’re pursuing, trainees could be caring for horses on a Kentucky farm or pruning vegetables in an Iowa greenhouse.

Most of these students take their new skills back to their native countries after the program. Special permission is required to remain in the country following the program.

Indira Velazquez left college in Honduras to study in the United States because of MAST International.

Since her arrival in January, the El Salvador native has been a MAST trainee watering budding plants and completing other jobs at the Como Park Conservatory in St. Paul.

Velazquez said her first two months have been valuable and she’s excited for the remainder of her stay in the United States.

“It’s a big experience in life, not only in your career, but you learn so much about the American culture,” she said.

Velazquez is the ninth MAST student to work for the Como Park Conservatory since the plant-growing facility learned of the program nearly a decade ago.

Conservatory manager Roberta Sladly said the exchange program has benefited the conservatory, and she looks forward to continued cooperation.

“It’s a great opportunity for them. We like to give them projects for the whole season, and it gives them an opportunity to test their skills,” Sladly said.

Now approaching two months into her experience, Velazquez says her English-speaking skills have improved substantially, giving her another skill to take home. She said big paychecks await her in Honduras for skilled English speakers in her field.

Jones said as the program continues, increased surveillance of international visitors by the Department of Homeland Security will make this year particularly interesting.

“We’ll see how they get through the new system,” Jones said. “Once the glitches are worked out, this will be a very good tool for us.”

Still in a transitional period of increased security, all international students must register with SEVIS, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which monitors international students across the country.

Exchange programs perform an important role in the federal government’s efforts to improve supervision.

MAST International sends student reports on activity, administrators report from site visits and the organization must complete annual reports.

Velazquez said her mother worries about her safety in the United States because of recent current events and a seemingly inevitable war with Iraq.

“I’m not too worried,” Velazquez said. Hoping to ease concerns at home, Velazquez said she e-mails her mother frequently.

A potential war has not harmed student interest in MAST International. In fact, enrollment is slightly above last year’s numbers.

“We were pleased,” Jones said, after noticing the trend.

Jones said during the gulf war, the program actually flourished.

Former MAST students and participating universities overseas play a large role in helping more students learn about the program. With increasing government scrutiny possibly discouraging future trainees from making the voyage to the United States, MAST International will pay particular attention to this year’s new security measures.

“The transition period is definitely the challenge,” Jones said.

Branden Peterson covers the St. Paul campus and welcomes comments at [email protected]