Texas State professor tapped for USDA grant examining rural youth and careers

 Shetay Ashford, an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational, Workforce and Leadership Studies at Texas State University, has been awarded a grant by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) to fund research into agricultural entrepreneurship in rural communities.

The $150,000 grant will support Ashford’s research project, “STEEAM (science, technology, engineering, entrepreneurship and mathematics) Pathways.” STEEAM Pathways will seek to identify factors that influence rural youth to enter the USDA/agricultural sciences workforce and engage in agricultural entrepreneurship in their communities.

Ashford will partner with Luling Economic Development Corporation, Luling Independent School District and the Luling-area Ministerial Alliance during the one-year grant period.

“This grant affords me the opportunity to conduct community-engaged research in local underserved communities,” Ashford said. “We will collect preliminary data to inform decision makers and policymakers in rural communities of innovative approaches to stimulate workforce development while reducing poverty and income inequality.”

The STEEAM Pathways research team will utilize a mixed-methods research design — collecting both quantitative data, such as surveys, and qualitative data from interviews and focus groups — to investigate the educational experiences that influence rural youth to pursue careers in agriculture and agricultural sciences that require postsecondary degrees. The study will also examine the existing university and community assets that may affect the interest of rural youth, especially in Black and Hispanic communities, in STEEAM-field undergraduate majors.

“Historically, schools in rural communities have provided fewer opportunities for rigorous mathematics and science courses,” Ashford said. “STEEAM outreach and extension programs, which supplement rural school systems, have the potential to stimulate interest in agriculture, improve parental involvement, accelerate pathways to postsecondary education and increase access to high-wage occupations.”

Ashford’s project is part of the Innovations for Rural Entrepreneurs and Communities (IREC) Priority Area of the Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities (AERC) Program. This program, run by the USDA, is a part of a total of $15.6 million in grants designed to increase prosperity in rural America through research, education and extension programs focused on promoting rural community development, economic growth and sustainability.

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