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Fostering Food Systems Connections

Farmland with blue sky

Meet Elleni Paulson, the First AScL Program Graduate

With a bachelor’s degree in strategic communications, Elleni Paulson didn’t initially seem like the ideal candidate for the Master of Professional Studies in Applied Sciences Leadership (AScL).

Elleni Paulson

As a public relations specialist with Colle + McVoy, she was more comfortable studying brands and marketing trends than unpacking science terminology and data.

At her job, Elleni worked closely with agriculture companies like WinField United and Farm Credit Mid-America—companies that “advocate for the farmer and for building connections between farmers and food consumers.”

The work they do resonated with her on a personal level. The food industry, she says, “contributes to our economy, our national health, and the way that we interact with each other on a daily basis.”

Through the AScL degree, she hopes to bridge her own knowledge gap and enhance her ability to share that knowledge with consumers.

A New Kind of Credential to Meet Student Needs

Elleni is the first graduate of the new Applied Sciences Leadership master’s program. The AScL degree is a combination of two graduate certificates: Integrated Food Systems Leadership (IFSL) and Leadership for Science Professionals (plus two additional courses).

This type of educational option is called a stackable credential. A stackable credential takes one program (or “microcredential”) and “stacks” it with another one to create one higher-level credential. This offers a convenient way for students to gain information and skills in stages, rather than having to invest in a long-term program all at once.

Woman's hands holding coffee cup and working on laptop

The Applied Sciences Leadership degree is offered completely online for maximum flexibility and accessibility. In particular, Elleni appreciated the cohort model of the IFSL Certificate, which allowed her to collaborate with students from other fields.

“Once in the cohort, I quickly realized that we had a lot to offer each other,” Elleni says. “Relying on a cohort was essential in helping me understand certain projects and how the work we were doing could realistically carry through to food systems.”

Strengthening Her Food Systems Framework

When Elleni was researching graduate programs, she saw that many of the programs focused on only one aspect of the food system or the science behind those niche aspects.

Cabbage field

She was drawn to the Integrated Food Systems Certificate because it “seemed to encompass everything” and gave her a “big-picture perspective” into the food systems industry.

The IFSL Certificate provided the broad food systems foundation that Elleni was seeking, while the business-related courses in the master's program bolstered her leadership and management expertise.

“I have a relative lack of experience in food systems,” she says, “so I felt it would be helpful to continue on to that master’s with a science emphasis, because that's not anything I studied as an undergrad.”

Closing the Communication Gap

For her capstone project, Elleni created a podcast that looked at broadband internet access for people in rural America. She found that many consumers in urban, better-connected areas were interested in sustainable farming methods without realizing that a lot of those practices require farmers to have a strong online connection.

"We really have to consider what our farmers have been telling us over the years about food, food systems, and food production and what consumers hear all the time.”

Without that connectivity, she says, “not only do farmers not know about some of the technologies, but they can't actually utilize them because they can't upload their field data to the cloud, and they can't access other farmers’ data.”

For Elleni, this simple disconnect highlighted the disparity between the information shared with consumers and food producers. Her goal, whether in advertising or another field, is to improve this communication so that all parties have the same knowledge and can make informed decisions. This is especially important, she says, in relation to sustainable food production and issues that tend to get a lot of media attention, like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and agricultural water use.

"We really have to consider what our farmers have been telling us over the years about food, food systems, and food production and what consumers hear all the time.”

The Big Takeaway

Everything Is Connected

“I found it really enlightening to have a better understanding of the resources behind different aspects of the food system, like what goes into product regulation, food distribution, and what are some of the factors that impact those things. It helped me map the chain of events that lead to things like food shortages, food deserts, or disparities between different communities.”

Pro Tip for Students

Grow Your Network, Grow Your Knowledge

“The more that I talked to people who are already in food distribution, production, or regulation, the more I realized how much I didn't know. So that led me into exploring new content and ideas, finding new people to connect with, and new holes in my own knowledge that I could fill.”