By Nichole Stevens
Day one at UT for new hire Tom Gill was July 1. Gill is the Institute of Agriculture’s Smith Chair in International Sustainable Agriculture and Director for International Programs. After taking inventory and talking with administrators, faculty, staff and students about their individual international agriculture programs and research, Gill is asking, “Where does UTIA want to take international engagement in the future?”
“I’m trying to look at the collective work so far and develop an organized, central place for faculty, staff and students to come with new ideas to strengthen their strategic impact with international engagement,” Gill said.
Gill’s own international experience began when he did missions work in Uganda after receiving his undergraduate degree.
Gill’s undergraduate degree was in geography. However, in a remote, northwestern rural community in Uganda, Gill saw how people engaged with agriculture every day to ensure their own and their community’s survival. That view sparked his interest in agricultural development on an international scale.
“It was pivotal to everything they had to do; their whole lives revolved around agriculture and food,” Gill said. “Part of the challenge in extending research and technologies in a lot of countries around the world is the lack of any kind of outreach, extension service, or engagement [formal or otherwise] with communities. How do we [at UT] build those bridges to reach the communities with the expertise we have to offer?”
There are already many UT faculty members on external grants doing compelling research and work with international partners. Gill hopes to synergize their activities and efforts from individual programs to build a collective whole.
“Helping faculty, staff and students to understand the other connections they can make for broader impacts is important,” Gill said. “We live in an ever-globalizing world, and realizing how we synergize our efforts at UT with partners across the world is good not only for communities across the planet but also for our communities here at home in Tennessee.”
“My role is more of a facilitator, coordinator, team builder who has come to bring cohesion and leadership to UTIA’s international engagement”.
One of the first programs UTIA is engaging with under Gill’s leadership: UTIA is bringing four international USDA Borlaug fellows to Knoxville this fall to work closely with individual faculty members on their research. After two to three months, the Borlaug fellows will return home to later work again with their UTIA partner in their home country, as part of a reciprocal, international exchange program.
In addition to welcoming the fellows, Gill is working closely with his chair donors, UT alumni Donnie and Terry Smith of Tyson Foods, who have set up a private foundation that works with sustainable agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, an area Gill where has been many times before for his research. Potential projects on the horizon include work with poultry farmers in Rwanda and Tanzania.
Advice for those considering international agricultural engagement? Gill noted that it can be difficult for those wanting to enter international agricultural development as a career, because there is no pre-defined path for entering the field. When asked what skills are most necessary for international engagement, Gill said “You have to be comfortable with being in other parts of the world, meeting new people, being sensitive of cultures, being willing to be open to new experiences that may be uncomfortable,” Gill advised.
“And most importantly, you have to be a good listener.”
The UT Agricultural-Work Engagement with International Partners was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.