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Kari Schwab: Policy engagement and student empowerment

This article was originally published by Maggie Kristian, guest author from the Undergraduate Leaders Program, under the title “Sustainability Alumni Change Agent Profile: Q & A with Kari Schwab”.

Portrait: Kari SchwabKari Schwab graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2010 with a B.S. in Agricultural and Food Business Management. Schwab grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and was very involved in FFA before coming to the University of Minnesota. She has worked for U.S. senators as well as in policy and education, especially that relating to agriculture. However, she has also continued to bring her impressive skill sets and achievements back to the University, and is now actively involved with the Policy Engagement Program which works to connect CFANS students with Minnesota policy leaders through the Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council (MAELC), working to not only play a great role in the future of Minnesota’s Agriculture policy, but empower and enable students to truly understand and impact the state and environment in which they live.

Q: You had a very business/marketing oriented major; how did you end up working in such a policy-oriented field?

A: Well, I always had some interest in politics. I remember my mother would always talk about the elections at home, and when I was at the U, the Franken/Coleman recounts were going on, so there was a lot of discussion around that on campus. I had always though I wanted to go into agriculture, into ag-business, that was kind of my big picture plan for things. When I graduated in 2010 though, the economy wasn’t that great for jobs, so I worked retail for a few years, just as a job. But then there was a major change in the U.S. Senate, and lots of new people who needed staff. So I applied there. Eventually, they had some legislative positions open up, for full-time, year-round positions. I ended up working for Senator Nelson, vice chair of the Minnesota Senate Education Committee– so again, the education theme- and worked for her for about a year. After that, I found an opening in the Agriculture Committee.

Q: How did you get involved in the CFANS Policy Engagement Program?

A: I actually read about it in The Daily, while I was working at the Senate, and I thought it was really cool, and I wanted to be involved. I went to a few meetings in 2013 and was asked to continue helping out in 2014. This version of the program is kind of new, because there are three of us that are new. We try to play to each other’s strengths. Last session, for example, I facilitated the discussion because I have some knowledge of the elections, especially local politics.

Q: What’s your vision for the CFANS Policy Engagement Program going forward? Is there anything you want to change?

A: I want to see students with a clear understanding of how these [political] processes work, so it’s not just showing up and doing some activities. People are devoting a lot of time to this, 3 hours each month, for no class credit. We have talked about having clear outcomes for a relevant and valuable experience. Last year we didn’t really get to focus on international, which is something we want to do.

Q: Why do you like your job? What makes you get up and come in to work every morning?

A: I think it’s the people and the variety of work. One day I could be working with high school students,Future Farmers of America kids and people who are interesting in maybe pursuing Ag-Ed…College students when I’m here in the office. Students are just really fun to work with. We also have a 16 person board with a lot of different backgrounds, we have 6 legislators, 2 farmers, someone from the FFA foundation, the president of the agriculture department. I get to interact with a wide variety of people there; our goal is to be the go-to source about legislation regarding Ag policy. We want to be that information source, so we end up in a lot of policy-oriented environments, we end up in the capitol about once a year. It’s nice because I get to have the policy side of things without the headache of the capitol schedule- sometimes we’d be up until 3 in the morning!

Q: So you’ve obviously been involved in policy that affects a lot of people. What advice would you give to a freshman College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences student today on how they could also become a world shaper?

A: If you’re interested in policy, make connections with people. And I know that sounds really difficult for a student. The senate offers a really great Minnesota Senate College Internship Program, and you don’t need to know a ton about policy to do it. I picked up a lot of it when I was there. It was all hands-on learning. There’s also usually a day dedicated for students to go to the capitol and gather, to have a rally. It could be union day, it could be University of Minnesota day, and basically any organization that has members has a day when they can meet with their legislators. It’s open to any student, and it’s a great opportunity.

Other than that, just watch the news! You have to go and seek it out, but it keeps you up to date and educated for when you have to talk to people about it. And the Minnesota State Capitol Building is always open –well, right now it’s under construction- but it’s the people’s building, and you can honestly call up any legislator, and depending on schedules you might not always get an appointment, but you can totally go and talk to one of your representative for 10 minutes and say ‘I want to talk about tuition freezing’ or whatever it is. That’s definitely something that’s unique about this country, and about Minnesota, it’s a really transparent system compared to a lot of other states.

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