Alumnus finds success on The Hill
By Jennifer Kemble
Eric Steiner is not a typical Purdue agricultural education graduate. Instead of interacting with high school students, Steiner meets with lobbyists, constituents, foreign dignitaries, and other U.S. Senate staff members.
Photo provided by Eric Steiner
Purdue agriculture alumnus Eric Steiner crouches in a cassava field while on a trip to study bird flue in Thailand.
Photo by Muzinat Azeez
In April, Steiner returned to Purdue to offer Purdue Agriculture students information about internships and his experience in Washington, D.C.
Steiner serves on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry under Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Through his involvement with this committee, Steiner has the opportunity to affect the health and well-being of the country, as well as the rest of the world, through U.S. policy. On a daily basis, Steiner works with legislators and constituents who have differing viewpoints. "I enjoy the challenge and diplomacy involved in building relationships and trying to solve complex disagreements," he said.
Steiner says his involvement in FFA and Purdue student organizations helped prepare him for this career, even though he never planned to end up where he is today. In fact, while in high school he says he wasn't really sure what he wanted to do. He thought about careers in agricultural sales, agricultural education or overseas agricultural development for a nonprofit organization, but says he never considered a place in government.
Following high school, Steiner held the state FFA office of reporter for a year and enrolled at Purdue. Following his junior year, he participated in a a summer internship with the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. Through this internship, he met Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who asked Steiner to join his re-election campaign. Steiner credits that experience with setting him on his current path. "You never know what doors are going to be opened to you," Steiner said.
After earning his bachelor's degree, he was a fellow at the Congressional Hunger Center for a year. While there, he was instrumental in drafting the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004. "The Act was the first major piece of legislation I had the opportunity to help with. It was an invaluable experience that I draw upon as I continue to assist the legislative process," Steiner said.
The act maximizes the enrollment of eligible children in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs while protecting the programs' integrity, Steiner says. It also expanded the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable and Summer Food Service programs. These programs are very important to children from low-income families, he said.
As a part of his job, Steiner frequently travels overseas on committee business. He says Purdue's study-abroad program prepared him for this work. While a student, Steiner traveled to Poland, Honduras and South Africa. Steiner made an effort to know the students he encountered and says the experience helps him in his current work.
"Being able to adjust and adapt to people with different language skills, religions and political systems is needed to perform my job well," Steiner said. "The experiences overseas through Purdue gave me the chance to develop these skills and gave my employer the confidence to give me responsibilities in this arena."
In addition to this experience, Steiner says his Purdue Agriculture degree gives him credibility in Washington, D.C., and overseas. "Purdue Agriculture has a positive reputation internationally," Steiner said. "People recognize the name and know that you have received a strong education."
He credits the program with making him a "generalist", one who has a broad base of knowledge and who can quickly adapt to new situations. In the next four years, Steiner hopes to earn a law degree while continuing to serve on the committee, but is uncertain of his future. Even though he says he loves his job, Steiner is open to any option.
"I think it would be great to be an ag teacher in a high school, an ambassador to another country, or maybe a professor in college. Who knows?" he said.