Published on 09/09/13

CAES students get a behind-the-scenes look at the policies that impact agriculture

By Merritt Melancon

With immigration reform, the farm bill and student loan negotiations making headlines this summer, the six University of Georgia students who spent the summer in Washington as College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences D.C. Ag Fellows were extremely busy.

“My first week there, I was up all night (going through farm bill mark ups), but I wasn’t tired,” said Valerie Noles, a senior studying agribusiness from Nevils, Ga. Noles worked in Rep. Austin Scott’s office. “You’re seeing history in the making, and people know that. The entire staff all actually care about what’s happening. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be up there.”

The UGA CAES D.C. Ag Fellowship program has given students an insight into the inner-workings of the U.S. Congress for more than two decades. This year’s fellows got a behind-the-scenes view of the hot button issues that made headlines on CNN, Fox News and the Sunday morning talk shows.

While these headlines can leave a lot of the public disheartened and shaking their heads, the fellows came out of their D.C. summer more optimistic and more willing to get involved.

“I’ve been surprised by how much responsibility is given to staff members and how many decisions are made by staff,” said Heather Hatzenbuhler, a senior studying environmental economics and management. She spent the summer working in Rep. Sanford Bishop’s office. “The whole idea that this city is run by 25 year-olds is not far from the truth. It’s encouraging to see that diligence and hard work can help you rise through the ranks.”

Over the past 16 years, Georgia legislators have recruited some of the best and brightest CAES students to work as fellows during the summer months. They in turn provide valuable insight into the real-world impact of agricultural policies.

“Ag Fellows typically work the entire summer and serve more like apprentice staff members,” said Josef Broder, CAES associate dean for academic affairs and the fellowship program’s coordinator. “Some may be asked to serve as mentors to other student interns.”

The academic training and leadership opportunities that students receive at the state's largest agricultural college leave them uniquely qualified to jump right in to the day-to-day work of a congressional office, Broder said.

Rebecca Rykard, a junior from Moultrie, Ga. studying animal science, hit the ground running when she arrived at Rep. Jack Kingston’s office in May. One of her first tasks was to create a briefing book for the 2014 Agriculture Appropriations Bill.

Being an integral part of Kingston’s team of staffers — all working to get legislation smoothly through the House — gave Rykard the kind of real world experience she would not have gained during an average summer internship, she said.

“Everyone in my office was good about working to help me learn and explaining the way that things work — but at the same time — they’ve let me learn things on my own,” Rykard said. “They let you know what’s expected of you, and you just figure it out and do it.”

She said it was empowering to take on that kind of real-world challenge and succeed.

Over the years many CAES D.C. fellows have been agribusiness or agricultural communication majors, but others have majored in food science, animal science and the plant sciences.

“I wasn’t originally sure if this is what I wanted to do this summer,” said Lee Lister, a senior from Cochran, Ga., studying food science. He worked in Sen. Johnny Isakson’s office. “I’ve always been interested in politics, but I thought that I might need to spend the summer in a scientific-based internship. But the more I thought about it, the more this opportunity kept coming up in my mind and I realized it was where I needed to be.”

Lister's work in Sen. Isakson’s office gave him insight into how policies that affect science, research and industry are decided and implemented. That may prove to be unique and valuable knowledge as he starts his career, he said.

The deadline for applying for the 2014 D.C. Ag Fellows program is Feb. 1, 2014. The program provides a living stipend while students are in D.C. and is open to all students in the college.

The fellowship is made possible through the UGA CAES Deans’ Promise, a collection of enrichment opportunities ranging from internships to study abroad programs.

For more information on the fellowship program, email CAES Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Josef Broder at for details. For more information on CAES, visit

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

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