Graduate Ag Research Spotlight:
“Outreach helped me see that my ultimate career would be working with youth in some way.” —Theoneste Nzaranyimana, PhD candidate, Agricultural Science Education and Communication
When he was young, Theoneste Nzaranyimana sometimes helped his father grow bananas, beef cattle and rice on their family farm in Rwanda, so his choice to study horticulture wasn’t surprising. But while earning a BSc degree at Africa University in Zimbabwe, he combined his love of plants with his passion for working with youth through outreach projects in orphanages, where he found that a garden offered a haven for the youth to tell their stories and develop essential skills. As an undergraduate, Nzaranyimana interned on a family farm in Bradford, Illinois. “I became part of the family,” he says of the cultural exchange. Before he went home to Africa, his host father encouraged Theo to apply to his own alma mater, Illinois State University, for graduate study. When Nzaranyimana returned to the U.S. to complete an MS in agriculture and postgraduate certificate in STEM education and leadership, his host family again welcomed him, and an Illinois Soybean Association grant defrayed the cost of his master’s research. He also volunteered to teach agriculture at an afterschool program for children from low-income households. When a mentor introduced him to the Agricultural Science Education and Communication program at Purdue, Nzaranyimana found the perfect blend of youth and Extension. “I had heard about Purdue when I was in Africa,” he says — “how it requires you to be smart and to work extra hard, but that the university is unique. I was inspired that if I get into this university, my dream could come true there.” He arrived at Purdue in August 2017 as a doctoral student with Kathryn Orvis, associate professor of extension education and associate professor of horticulture.
“I’m exploring how urban agriculture promotes life skills, entrepreneurship and healthy eating among minorities,” Nzaranyimana says. At the Felege Hiywot Center in Indianapolis, he used surveys and interviews to measure urban gardening’s impact on children from communities with food deserts and limited resources. Nzaranyimana evaluated their attitudes toward healthy eating, motivation to stay in school and interest in entrepreneurial opportunities, at the same time introducing the youth to agricultural careers.
Nzaranyimana credits his advisor for providing opportunities to attend conferences and workshops, which have been particularly important to his professional development. “Shifting from horticulture into ag education was a big jump,” he explains. He writes and/or speaks English, the first language of Zimbabwe; French; Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda; Swahili; and the Bantu languages Shona and Kirundi. He enjoys meeting other international students at Purdue, especially fellow graduate students who share his interest in exploring “how to use our knowledge to help our brothers and sisters in Africa.”
After completing his degree this summer, Nzaranyimana intends to seek an international extension position that will allow him to work with farmers and other extension professionals as well as youth. His hobbies include interacting with people and listening to gospel music. He also hopes to find a local garden where he can contribute his labor, especially during planting season.
Pictured above: At a mock clinic in partnership with Timmy Global, Theoneste Nzaranyimana helped children learn about varied careers in healthcare.