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National leadership role helps shape senior

Editor’s Note: This story was written when Jessica Peterson was a senior. She earned her bachelor’s degree in agronomy: crop and soil management in 2022.

Jessica Peterson was never certain that she wanted to attend college. She was comfortable living on her family farm and knew she could stay home and farm if she wanted. Attending a large university like Purdue was an option, but not a dream like some others have.

“I was just a farm kid from northern Indiana. I didn’t really want to go to college,” said Peterson, a senior agronomy: crop and soil management major from South Bend, Indiana.

Peterson surprised herself by choosing to embark on the winding path of college, which was full of unexpected turns. She was always ambitious and wanted to be an agronomist, but said her first goal was to improve her farm’s production and carry on the family tradition.

Jessica Peterson in the lab Jessica Peterson, a senior agronomy: crop and soil management major from South Bend, Indiana, used her time at Purdue to join and serve a national community of students. Photo by Jack Garner.

Peterson said her connection to the family farm pushed her to serve her broader community. On the farm, she said, everyone has a job to perform. But beyond that, members of the farming community look out for each other and will help anyone in need, she explained. In this way, Peterson said she was raised to serve others. Attending college gave her the opportunity to expand her service from her local community to a national level.

She took her dedication to service to college, which meant she joined, and began to lead, many organizations. One of those roles stands out. She was elected recording secretary for a national student organization called Students of Agronomy, Soils, and Environmental Sciences (SASES).

In that role, Peterson said, she was able to share her passion with hundreds of agronomy students across the country. It reaffirmed her commitment to building a community through the agronomy network.

Leading during the COVID-19 pandemic was no easy task, Peterson said. But instead of taking a step back with the rest of the world, she ensured other students in her organizations could make the most of their time.

Once Peterson began with SASES in November 2020, she had to prepare for the group’s spring meeting. Like many events during the pandemic, the event was moved online. The virtual event was not well-attended, but that did not drag down Peterson’s morale.

“We were all tired of Zoom meetings,” said Peterson with a chuckle.

She eventually got to plan an in-person annual meeting in Salt Lake City, which was attended by hundreds of people. But even that tested her abilities.

“Trying to plan an annual meeting in an area you are not very familiar with was definitely a challenge,” Peterson said. “It was really neat, though. I got to experience a lot of what Salt Lake City’s agriculture was like.”

Peterson persevered because of the sense of community she learned on the family farm. She serves, she said, because she believes she can make a difference with the broader community of agronomy students. She’s also still thinking about farming — she rented a field to kickstart her own career in farming.

“I’ve always wanted to be an agronomist. My dream career path hasn’t wavered,” Peterson said.

But the sense of community goes both ways. Peterson chalks up much of her success to the time she spent in the organizations, including the Agronomy Club.

“Being in leadership positions at Purdue definitely equipped me with skills I could use later on,” Peterson said. “My time-management skills definitely improved once I got more involved.”

Peterson is now well-positioned to enter professional life after graduation. She has developed so many new skills just by coming to West Lafayette and getting involved. Most notably, her leadership opportunity at SASES made her a better communicator, something she is eager to apply to her working life. She faced another unexpected roadblock in her communication work with SASES.

“We had an officer from Puerto Rico who did not know much English. So, I learned how to work through that language barrier,” Peterson said. “Communicating between time zones to plan officer meetings was difficult, also.”

Peterson took a massive leap of faith by leaving the family farm to attend Purdue. That decision is now shaping her life in ways she never imagined. She never turned down a chance to grow her knowledge and skills. She surprised herself with everything she’s accomplished.

“I looked into the opportunities Purdue had, and knew it was close to home, so I decided to come here,” she said. “I’ve had so many doors open to me that I wouldn’t have gotten if I didn’t come to Purdue.”

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