Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Student Spotlight: Dave Mackinson

by Ann Abbott

Dave Mackinson was a student in my "Spanish & Entrepreneurship" course several years ago. I remember that he was fun, easy-going, well-liked by all his classmates and that I sincerely enjoyed reading his work and listening to what he had to say.

This semester, I just happened to run into Dave on campus as he was attending a recruiting event in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. But I knew that our Spanish students could greatly benefit from his insights and experiences as well. So Dave has very generously taken the time to write up some of the touchstone experiences in his path from University of Illinois student to international, agri-business professional.

Students, consider this a roadmap! I know that a lot of you are doing many of the same activities that David did as a student, yet you don't know precisely where they can lead. They can lead in many different directions, obviously, but I think you can learn a lot from Dave's path. I'd like to highlight a few things:
  • Dave credits his Spanish-language skills for his job. Always, always work hard on your Spanish. It's easy, I know, to just meet your course requirements. Go beyond that! Look for opportunities to listen to and speak Spanish whenever possible. Really polish your written Spanish before you hand in an assignment. Push yourself and push your Spanish!
  • Dave was willing to relocate. Are you? Are you making your study abroad and internship decisions based on your apartment lease, trying to match your friends' plans, and playing it safe? You may need to take some risks.
  • Dave had a wonderful study abroad experience, but he seems to be saying that you should take charge of that experience and separate yourself from English and other Americans as much as possible. You can't immerse yourself in the language and culture of the host country if you never cut your ties from English and your college friends.
  • Do you think agriculture is just for farmers? As Dave explains his job, you'll see that it's not. Don't have preconceived notions about "right" fields and "wrong" fields for your career. Look broadly for opportunities.

Here are Dave's own words:

"I will try to just give you an idea of what kinds of things I was interested in and the experiences that I’ve had.

"I majored in International Agricultural Economics in the College of ACES. I actually stumbled upon the major – I had never studied economics in high school, I was just looking for something international because I enjoyed Spanish and I thought business might be a logical avenue if I wanted to travel.

"I took a winter break trip to the Dominican Republic with Dean Bohn my freshman year. Incredible experience that I attribute to the career track I’m on now – it made me want to travel more, it made me realize how necessary it is to speak Spanish at an advanced level, and it made agricultural systems seem very interesting and relevant to me (we toured coffee, avocados, sugarcane, etc.). Being from a farm in central Illinois, I grew up not considering agriculture to be any kind of door to an international career. I was very wrong.

"My sophomore year I spent the spring semester in Granada, Spain. I recommend the experience to anyone, it was 5 of the best months of my life. The CEGRI program was excellent but I did very little assimilating into the Spanish culture outside of that in Granada – it was much easier (and very fun) to just re-create my U of I experience in southern Spain with other Americans.

"Fall of my junior year I realized there were career fairs and I thought it high time that I look for an internship. My goal was to find some opportunity abroad or at least a program or company that works internationally. I picked out a few company names from a list of employers and glanced at their websites to see what I would be interested in. Like my major, I stumbled upon Syngenta. Honestly, I knew very little about what kind of work I would be doing here (Washington, Iowa). My summer internship was full of days working in our corn and bean fields. My father was convinced there was still hope I might be a farmer, haha.

"I’ll explain as succinctly as possibly what my department in Syngenta does. We are part of a supply chain that starts with corn breeders developing new lines (for example, crossing a male line that has excellent drought resistance with a female that has large ears). Over the course of several years (and many growing seasons) we take the 100 or so seeds that breeder has “created” and begin the process of multiplication. The goal is to harvest more and more seeds each season while still maintaining the quality of this new line. Eventually, we might then cross this line with another strong variety to create the hybrid seed our company will eventually sell to farmers to grow. Due to the competition between major seed companies (Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta) the need to create the best product possible makes the timeframe for production an issue. Thus, the moment we harvest seed in Iowa, we put it on a boat or a plane and ship it to Argentina, Chile, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico. My job is literally to follow the seed we produced in Washington, Iowa to and from Chile. We harvest in September here and we plant in October in Chile – we harvest in April in Chile and we plant in Iowa in May. It’s essentially just a cycle (with many, many variables, haha).

"Syngenta does not have its own plant in Chile so we work with several contractors there that are paid to grow our seed for us (and to our very technical specifications). My position was created due to our program expanding in Chile, my willingness to re-locate, and my ability to do all of my work in Spanish. Very few professionals in the agricultural industry speak Spanish – that has opened a door for me within my company. My position is an assistant to our production management team. I would consider my role in Chile as part liaison (organizing calls between our Chile and US teams, translating, translating, translating, haha, working out problems with Chilean contractors, getting a feel of our growing locations by talking to Chilean farmers), part data-analysis (agronomic data, reports, shipping logistics and planning, etc), and part government issues (the process of certifying new plants and then constantly importing and exporting them is tricky).

"I’ve had very positive experiences in Chile, and there is a list of things that I love about the country. The language has been another experience entirely. Unlike my time in Spain, working in Chile only involves other Chileans and they do not speak English. It was incredibly challenging sometimes. You want to be as complete and as accurate as possible with your work, but often things slip through my conversations or phone calls. You want to be able to work at your highest level but things involving the language or my new country often really slowed me down. You want to just have a normal conversation sometimes too.

"My favorite memories in Chile involve my time in Talca, Santiago, and then along the coast in Pichilemu (I met surfers in Santiago who are from Pichilemu; they convinced me it was the best place to spend my weekends). My first months in Chile I lived on the outskirts of Talca in a cabaña near one of main growing areas. The family that ran the cabañas and the adjacent hotel really helped me get started. I ate most of my meals with them and then spent my evenings with them talking politics or life and drinking Chilean wine and beer (both really good stuff). Santiago was another experience entirely. For the harvest season there we are located at plants south of the city, so it was worth it to me to live in the city (the neighborhood where I lived is called Bellavista) and then just commute in the mornings (I can now drive stick up and down mountains and through the crazy streets of Santiago, haha).

"Like a few other things, last spring I stumbled upon a Masters program for Latin American Economics that Georgetown has in Santiago. Long story short (this email is already too long, haha) I got accepted a few weeks ago. So, I’ll be in Chile for work again in a few weeks until my contract ends next spring. Plan is to then stay in Chile for school.

"Ok, I’ll leave you with that. Hope you’re doing well.


Thanks, Dave. You're an inspiration for our Spanish students. Good luck with your Masters program, and I hope that we can post an update on you and your success soon!

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