Walter B. Saul High School in Philadelphia is unlike any other program in the United States. Located on the edge of a major metropolis, the school is home to a full-size farm, greenhouse, veterinary center and livestock barn. After spending her childhood summers gardening with her great aunt, Dr. Jeneen Fields-Abrams knew that Saul High School would be a part of her future.
Q: Growing up in the city, what drew you to agricultural education and becoming a member of the FFA?
A: After enrolling in Saul High School, every student becomes a member of FFA. Agricultural science was part of the mandatory curriculum for me as a freshman in high school. Students are exposed to dairy science, floriculture, animal husbandry, greenhouse management, agricultural mechanics and more. My classmates and I gained so much from the program, from developing leadership skills to learning about various areas of agriculture. My experiences at Saul and in FFA opened up a whole new world for me as an urban child; it illuminated a world of possibilities.
Q: How did this experience impact your future career?
A: One of the things I loved about being an FFA member was how females were treated equally. There were no traditional gender roles in our program. We were expected to feed cows, plant seeds, shovel manure and get our hands dirty. If you fast-forward a few years, that experience was foundational to my education and career decisions. Before graduating, my administrators shared that they could not find a single African-American female with a doctoral degree in plant breeding and genetics. Today I conduct research at Purdue University to develop pathogen-resistant soybean varieties, teach the largest foundational botany course and co-lead a study-abroad class to explore Peruvian agriculture. I also pass on the leadership and confidence I developed as an FFA member by overseeing the Women in Agriculture learning community.
Q: It’s always inspiring to meet those people who break a glass ceiling. What advice would you give to future FFA alumni?
A: Dream with no limits. This organization provides a lot of exposure. Some of my first experiences speaking in front of people came through FFA competitions and parliamentary procedure practice. These experiences can impact your life in both the short and long term. Even decades later I can recall the FFA motto, which has impacted my work ethic and desire to constantly learn and grow. Anyone who knows me knows I give 100% and I enjoy the work I do. I love plants and I love people. It’s a great trust when people count on you, and it’s my responsibility to be the best I can for myself and them. This is living a life of servant leadership.