By Amb. Kenneth M. Quinn
It started in 1994 with a conversation between John Ruan Sr. and Norman Borlaug. Ruan had remarked, "We need some young people around at the World Food Prize." Norm reportedly complained that "kids these days don't know where their food comes from."
Together these two 80-year-olds decided to do something about it, which led to a call from Ruan's office to Ann Schodde, then the director of the Iowa Center for International Understanding, and a request for her to organize an event at the World Food Prize that would involve high school students.
With her characteristic energy, Anne succeeded in getting 13 Iowa students along with their teachers to attend the very first World Food Prize Youth Institute that October. While it was a short, one-day event, it was incredibly high powered as there were three Nobel Peace Prize laureates as part of the "faculty": Borlaug; that year's World Food Prize laureate, Mohammed Yunus of Bangladesh, and former President Jimmy Carter.
By 1999, the Youth Institute had grown slowly to about 25 high school students, still all from Iowa.
One extremely innovative addition came in 1998 when, at the suggestion of an Iowa State University student named Travis Franck, two "graduates" of the Youth Institute were provided the opportunity for a summer assignment at two of the world's most prominent international agricultural research centers in Mexico and Kenya.
In 2000, when I returned to Iowa following my retirement from the U.S. State Department to become president of the World Food Prize, the entire staff consisted of me and one executive assistant. One of the first things I did was hire Lisa Fleming to be the director of our youth programs. Over the last 15 years, she has been at the forefront of building the Global Youth Institute, expanding its scope and quality.
The Global Youth Institute is now a three-day experience for over 160 high school students, who this year come from 24 states and U.S. territories, as well as from Canada, Mexico, Egypt, Morrocco and a delegation of Chinese students from Iowa's sister state, Hebei province.
The international internship program (renamed the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship) has also grown exponentially. Last summer there were 23 high school students sent by the World Food Prize for incredible eight-week assignments at renowned research institutes in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
The most amazing statistic from this entire program is that two-thirds of the participants and most of the superstars have been young women, two of whom will receive our highest recognition, the John Chrystal and Elaine Symoniak awards, at our laureate award ceremony Thursday evening.
Along the way, the Global Youth Institute has spawned new youth initiatives.
• In 2007, with a grant provided by Norman Borlaug's close friend Clay Mathile, the World Food Prize embarked on a national expansion of the youth institute program in an effort to fulfill one of Norm's fondest dreams: That there could be a high school youth institute in every state. There are now World Food Prize youth institutes in 12 states, with the goal of adding 10 more states in the next five years.
In 2010, a conversation I had with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on a train platform in Tokyo led to our creating the Wallace-Carver Fellows program. To date 83 "alumni" of the World Food Prize high school programs have gone on to have a paid summer research experience at USDA laboratories across the United States.
In 2011, with a generous grant by DuPont Pioneer President Paul Schickler and his wife, Claudia, and the active support of Gov. Terry Branstad and Iowa State University, we launched the Iowa Youth Institute. The goal of the Iowa Youth Institute is to have every high school in Iowa identify a "Borlaug Scholar" who, with a teacher, takes part in a daylong program on the Iowa State campus addressing global food security issues. With exceptional support of ISU President Steven Leath, we had over 240 Iowa high school students along with their teachers take part in the Iowa Youth Institute in Ames last spring.
Most recently, we have been actively collaborating with the new STEM Food and Ag Council led by Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Paul Schickler, with a goal to create a youth institute similar to our Iowa Youth Institute in every state.
The bottom line is that what has resulted from offhand comments 20 years ago is now one of the most innovative and unique programs and experiences for high school students anywhere in America, and indeed the world. The results over those two decades are dramatic.
• More than 1,500 students have been impacted by participating in the Global Youth Institute.
• 227 have been Borlaug-Ruan interns.
• 240 students take part in the Iowa Youth Institute each year.
• 92 percent of students who complete any of our programs enroll in college programs in agricultural science.
• 77 percent go on to careers in STEM-related areas.
Our youth team, which now also includes Keegan Kautzky, Catherine Swoboda, Libby Crimmings and Jacob Hunter, all young Iowans personally inspired by Borlaug, is responsible for all of these achievements. They believe, as I do, that fulfilling Norman Borlaug's dream of inspiring the next generation by creating Global Youth Institutes in every state, would be one of the greatest tributes we could make for Norm during his centennial year and would probably be the one he would love the most.