By Alan Burns

Three Mississippi State University students participated in a study abroad program in Colombia this past spring break to learn about precision agriculture. The program was a bilateral exchange that saw students from Colombia also visiting Mississippi.


For three Mississippi State University (MSU) students, this past spring break was a bit different from a normal trip to the beach. Marisa Laudadio, Cristina Griffith, and Diana Wilson had the opportunity to spend their spring break in a study abroad program in South America.

The study abroad program led them to Bogotá and Santa Marta, Colombia, where they had a chance to recognize aspects of precision agriculture, rural development policies, and culture. This program was led by Dr. Gina Rico Mendez, a Research Fellow at the Social Science Research Center (SSRC), and Dr. Sandra Guzman, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Water Resources Center at Auburn University. Both Rico Mendez and Guzman are Colombian natives and attended Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá.

The program officially titled Study Abroad and Spanish Language for Precision Agriculture, was funded by 100,000 Strong In the Americas’ Innovation Fund Grant. It saw MSU partnering with SENA-Regional, Magdalena -Centro Acuícola y Agroindustrial de Gaira (SENA-M), a publicly funded workforce development institution in northern Colombia with the goal of increasing bilateral exchange between the partners.
This study abroad was the first bilateral exchange program in the field of precision agriculture that focused on innovations in agriculture, combined with cultural awareness at MSU. Bilateral exchanges provide students and faculty from both institutions the chance to study in a different country and learn from one another.

The Innovation Fund Grant seeks to fuel strategic partnerships between universities in the Americas to build a “hemisphere of students ready to compete and thrive in the 21st century workforce.” In order to prepare the students according to those goals, two group of students and faculty, one from MSU and other from SENA-M visited Colombia (March 10-18) and the United States (April 20-28) respectively.

“This exchange project was the first of its kind, bridging Mississippi and Colombia,” said Rico Mendez. “It was definitely a challenge, but we had a unique chance to learn from one another about different agricultural practices and to compare the application of new technology in two completely different geographic areas.”

The two groups of students had both shared and separate objectives for their exchange. For MSU students, the goal was to increased knowledge about precision agriculture data techniques, large versus small farm management practices, and comparative rural development policies. For SENA-M students, the goal was to access advanced research in precision agriculture aimed at improving transfer of technology and education tools, expand collaboration networks, and increase awareness of higher education opportunities in both Colombia and US. Both shared the program goals of enabling creative thinking, expanding collaboration capacity, honing foreign language skills, and increasing multicultural awareness.

Student Participants

The group from MSU consisted of two faculty members (Rico Mendez and Guzman) and three students. Marisa Laudadio-political science and communication major; Cristina Griffith- agribusiness major; and Diana Wilson-food science and nutrition major.

“We had a great team that went along,” said Rico Mendez. “It was very interesting to note as well, that all of the students and faculty from MSU were women, while the opposite was true for SENA-M.”

“The Precision Agriculture study abroad was a great experience, more than I could have imagined,” said Cristina Griffith. “I already had a love for agriculture and Spanish, but I came back encouraged and inspired to try even harder in my classes because I could now grasp the end result of my education.”

From SENA-M, there were two faculty members, Jorge Peralta and Cristian Angarita, and three students, Jerrys Arrieta-irrigation major; Aldair Molina, and Johan Cantillo, both precision agriculture majors. At SENA-M, the students are commonly called apprentices, as they are learning applied technical skills in agriculture.

“For me the exchange with MSU was the best experience in my life, it gave me a different perspective, this trip changed my way I look at things” said Aldair Molina, one of the SENA-Students. Another student, Jerrys Arrieta, said “The exchange to MSU allowed me to get to know a different culture, with a different way of living. At the same time, it was a very motivating experience that encouraged me to keep studying and working for the development and technology in agriculture.”

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MSU students visit a banana farm in Magdalena, Colombia. (photo provided by Gina Rico Mendez)

Planning for the Exchange

The program was set up in four phases: establishing the partner connection, study abroad planning, study abroad implementation, and evaluation.

For the first phase, the programs looked at establishing contact between the two partners. Most of the contact was online, with meetings occurring every six weeks from June 2017 to February 2018. This planning phase allowed the teams to develop their program goals and decide on communication strategies for the students.

Phase two of the program featured further planning for the study abroad while the team began recruiting students. Drs. Rico-Mendez and Guzman pushed the Colombia exchange to potential new students majoring in Agriculture and Life Sciences at MSU. The team collaborated with MSU’s Office of Study Abroad and the International Institute to promote the opportunity during the fall 2017 study abroad fair and other campus events.

Part of the exchange program involved an online course entitled, “Educating the Next Generation of Global Leaders: Social-Water Nexus in Unconventional Environments.” This course was greenlit by the MSU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and focused on precision agriculture, as well as Colombian social and policy context in agriculture.

“The goal for the class was to introduce students participating in the project into non-traditional cultural, governmental, and water management aspects of precision agriculture,” said Rico Mendez. “We decided to create the online course to provide a background before we actually made the site visits.”

Studying Abroad

Over the course of March and April, the students completed the study abroad portion of the program. Prior to departure for Colombia, the faculty leading the project created a booklet in English for MSU students that included information about Colombia, an itinerary for the trip, and important information on traveling abroad. A similar booklet was created in Spanish for the SENA-M faculty and students with information about the United States, an itinerary, and information on traveling abroad.

From March 10-18, participants from MSU made their way to Colombia. They first went to Bogotá, where they had the chance to visit different historical parts of the city. The MSU team then traveled to Santa Marta where they met the SENA team for the first time.

Rico Mendez explained that their time in Santa Marta allowed the students to interact with each other, as well as provided a chance for them to see how both commercial and small banana farms operate. After seeing how both operate differently, the team traveled to the Port of Santa Marta to see how bananas are packaged and shipped to the United States and other regions of the world. The team also had the chance to visit other regional and national cultural landmarks including the Tayrona National park; Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the death place of Simon Bolivar (the George Washington like character for South America), and spent some time at the beach.

“As Colombians, we are proud we open the doors of exchange between MSU and SENA; we gave low-income students from Colombia a lifetime opportunity of traveling abroad and letting them know that opportunities exist for them in Colombia and abroad. This was also an eye-opening experience for MSU students, some of whom had never been in a plane or traveled abroad,” said Rico Mendez.

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Students from MSU learn about the packaging process for bananas. (photo provided by Gina Rico Mendez)

“My love of agriculture became more directed after the study abroad trip. Through experiencing international agriculture hands-on, I found my passion for the future in helping people with Agriculture Engineering Technology,” Griffith stated.

SENA-M faculty and students had a similar opportunity to travel to the United States and begin the second part of the study abroad from April 20 to 28. While in Mississippi, the SENA team was exposed to multiple research areas, as well as some leisure activities. While on campus, the group visited many units including: The International Institute, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Precision Agriculture Lab, and Ag & Bio engineering Water and Environmental Research Lab, Stennis Institute of Government, Social Science Research Center, Geosystems Research Institute, and the MSU Library where they toured the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library.

The SENA-M faculty and students had a chance to travel to the MSU-Delta Research and Extension Center (DREC) in Stoneville, MS. There they met with researchers to talk about precision agriculture and irrigation methods for a more efficient use of water, as well as toured the USDA-ARS Genomics and Bioinformatics Research Lab on location. The SENA team also got to visit with the MSU Precision Agriculture Laboratory team to learn about some of their materials and fly drone simulators.

“The students had the opportunity to see innovative research at multiple levels; from the implementation of cost-effective irrigation methods to determine the right time and amount of water by using soil moisture sensors and UAV’s, to the research at the molecular level in crop genomics and water quality. With the simulators and field visits, the students had a hands-on experience in automation that could be translated to the Colombian landscape”, said Guzman.

While in the United States, the team got to experience some leisure activities that counted as cultural awareness. These activities included going to some MSU athletic events and a tour of the campus. During their trip to the Mississippi delta, the team visited the B.B. King Blues Museum in Indianola, MS and took a brief trip to Memphis, TN.

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SENA-M students learn about drone usage in precision agriculture. (photo provided by Gina Rico Mendez)

Creating a Partnership

The program was seen as a success for all involved, including the students from both MSU and SENA-M. Overall, the program allowed a partnership to form between the two universities. This relationship allowed the faculty from both universities to expand their knowledge base in agricultural practices, and also allowed the SENA-M to experience their first international trips.

In the future, the team hopes that there is a chance to identify long-term institutional faculty at each university to lead new iterations of the project. This would require faculty that are fluent in both English and Spanish, as well as familiar with the Colombian and SENA institutional context and culture.

“This project afforded us the opportunity to establish the first partnership with an institution in Colombia,” said Dr. Julie Jordan, associate vice president for international programs and executive director of the MSU International Institute. “I expect the MSU-SENA-M partnership opened the doors for a broader collaboration between MSU and institutions of higher education and workforce development in Colombia. This country is going through an incredible moment given its significant economic growth, increased access to higher education, and post-conflict scenario.”

Jordan explained that the International Institute serves as MSU’s hub for integration of global experiences, like studies abroad, into the institutional framework. This allows students, faculty, and staff to learn more about global challenges, such as food security, and increase their opportunities to actively engage and contribute to solving those challenges. She viewed the study abroad to Colombia as an opportunity for MSU and SENA-M students to apply their academic knowledge to think about problems of food production and distribution from a global perspective.

“It is important to recognize the effort and commitment of the institute´s staff in the implementation of this project, their work was critical for the successful completion of this study abroad,” Jordan concluded.

Rico-Mendez, who is a native of Bogotá, Colombia, saw the importance of the opportunity for SENA-M students to travel abroad to the United States.

“Seeing these young SENA-M students encouraged to continue their path on higher education, working for their country and their communities from their respective areas of interest, enabled a sense of pride among the project team,” she explained.

“In the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) at MSU we have been promoting the transformational benefits that study abroad experiences provide to students,” said Dr. Scott Willard, associate dean in CALS. “The exchange with Colombia that CALS-MSU engaged in this past Spring was an excellent example of these types of experiences. It was an educational partnership that went way beyond our expectations, and provided the students from both institutions and countries with a tremendous experience to understand different cultures and agricultural production practices.”

Willard stated that cross-over exchanges provide benefits for both the institutions and students during our current global marketplace and increasing interconnected society.

“While the internet and other technologies bring us all closer together, nothing replaces actually seeing, doing, and experiencing another place first hand,” he explained.

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Students and faculty from SENA-M visit with MSU students and tour campus. (photo provided by Gina Rico Mendez)

“We at Mississippi State University had initiated a precision agriculture program recently, and it coincided with the awarded grant for an exchange opportunity in this same area,” Willard concluded, explaining that the timing of the event was very important. “Having students engage from both institutions around topics related to precision agriculture, water security, and global food webs in a comparative nature by visiting each other’s countries and regions will no doubt have lasting impacts as they draw on these experiences in their future careers.”

One of the most inspiring aspects, according to Rico-Mendez, was the ability of the students to work together despite their differences and language barriers. She stated that she felt it provided a great example of 100,000 Strong in the Americas’ goals and the potential of this current generation.

“The capacity of the students to find ways to communicate with each other, despite there being a language barrier, was so inspiring,” she said. “They learned that even though they live over 2,000 miles from each other, there are things they have in common and, with the help of technology, they were able talk with one another and develop connections.”


Visit ssrc.msstate.edu for more information on the Social Science Research Center. For more in-formation on SENA-M, visit centrogaira.blogspot.com.

Colombian Exchange Program