Kelley Lawhorn

Kelley Lawhorn with Topflight Grain Cooperative encouraged young women attending the Women Changing the Face of Agriculture conference to pursue careers that interest them. 

DECATUR, Ill. — Whitney Thomson is proof that networking while in college can lead to career opportunities. A little luck and timing helps, too.

Three years ago, when she was a John Wood Community College sophomore in Quincy,Ill, she attended the Women Changing the Face of Agriculture conference. She listened to Ashley Boydstun, Rabo AgriFinance vice president of engagement, talk about careers at the company.

“Three days Iater, I met her at another event. She was so welcoming,” Thomson said.

Boydstun invited her to St. Louis for a day to visit the company. This visit led her to getting an internship that summer in St. Louis and another the next year at the Cedar Falls office in Iowa.

This year, on March 6, the tables turned for the young woman who grew up on a centennial farm in Missouri. Thomson, now a graduate student at Illinois Western University, was a host for high schoolers at the Women Changing the Face of Agriculture conference organized by the Illinois Agri-Women in Decatur. She told students her story and offered tips about how to take advantage of career and internships opportunities.

This conference provides high school students with the opportunity to explore different career paths offered in the agriculture sector. Students interact with professional women working in agriculture and related areas including engineering, dairy, conservation, communication, research, banking and engineering.

Marie Shaffer is one of the students who arrived with a pretty firm idea of what career she wants to pursue. Shaffer’s dad and grandfather are both engineers. She has similar interests and aptitudes. After meeting with a variety of professionals at the conference, she said she is open to a broad range of fields, especially with an internship.

Shaffer is a high school senior in urban Decatur, Illinois, which just started an FFA program last year. She’s saying “yes” to every opportunity FFA offers. She went into the career and college day with the same attitude, happily asking questions and gathering information.

“I haven’t heard of some of these companies,” she said.

She was most interested in internship opportunities at Corteva Agriscience and the NRCS. She spoke with USDA engineer Katleyn Rebbie to learn about the job. Rebbie told students NRCS needs archeologists, engineers, field conservationists and a wide variety of scientists.

Internship opportunities were a common topic for both students and presenters.

“Try a career before you buy it,” said Jamie Jones, USDA NRCS soil conservationist. It’s like test driving a car before you choose the best one for you.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.