It’s not easy to get face time with a dean.

But Oregon State University senior Tom Griffin has met with Sonny Ramaswamy, dean the university’s College of Agricultural Sciences, six times this term, most recently on Wednesday. He’s also connected via email with Ramaswamy throughout the fall; both plan to stay in contact during the rest of the year, even as Griffin plans to travel to Washington, D.C., to intern for Rep. Greg Walden.

Griffin, who’s majoring in environmental economics, policy and management, is one of nine students participating in the agricultural sciences college’s Leadership Academy. The school year-long program that launched in September aims to give students necessary leadership and communication skills with the help of a faculty mentor, such as Ramaswamy.

The creators of Leadership Academy hope the program will make students more employable and thus aid their job search and entrance into the professional work.

It’s an innovative program that’s developed from both research on recent college graduates nationwide and informal feedback agricultural sciences received from employers, said Kellie Strawn, director of the Leadership Academy. The problem: many graduates’ interpersonal “soft skills” — such as communication, problem solving and team work skills — aren’t always as sharp as their technical skills and knowledge.

To address this issue, the college looked into similar programs already running at Purdue University and University of Illinois as they developed their own concoction, which emphasizes goal-setting and building a relationship with a mentor.

“Ours looks very unique here on campus,” Strawn said.

Currently, the program is only open to students in the agricultural sciences and forestry colleges, who applied and interviewed for one of the 10 slots (creators hope to double the available spots next year). There’s no academic credit to be earned, but students receive a $1,500 stipend for the year, funded through contributions to the college.

Possibly the most important component for students is the relationship with a mentor. Strawn said that many of the participating faculty members have both leadership and industry experience; they can put students in touch with potential employers, suggest conferences and seminars that aid in building their interpersonal skills and share stories of their own professional life to provide overall insight.

For Griffin, that mentor relationship is tremendously beneficial.

He’s using the program to focus on conflict resolution and expand his professional network, and Ramaswamy has helped him expand these areas through developing practical strategies — such as how to build relationships with people one meets at a professional conference — and sharing stories from his long career as an academic leader.

“It’s been awesome gleaning from his experience in conflict resolution,” said Griffin, who plans to attend law school next year and eventually become a lobbyist for agricultural organizations.

Jon Calhoun, a junior in agricultural business management, is working with mentor Steve Petrie, director of Pendleton’s Columbia Basin Experimental Station. Although they haven’t met in person as often as Griffin and Ramaswamy, Calhoun has valued Petrie’s insight and connections in the Pacific Northwest grain industry, as he hopes to one day become a grain merchandiser.

Along with the student-mentor relationship, Strawn and general agriculture professor Jonathan Velez have promoted professional goal-setting throughout the term with bi-weekly seminars. This classroom time has created a tight-knit group among the cohort of students and allows for Strawn, Velez and guest speakers to encourage exploration of one’s strengths and goals.

“We really stressed setting these leadership development goals that meet their needs and address their areas that they’ve identified for growth,” Strawn said.

Each student’s professional goals look different, and Calhoun values how each student can personalize the program and relationship with a mentor.

“It’s completely customizable,” he said. “Every student’s (plan) is completely different.”

With two terms remaining in this year’s program, many see progress in their professional skills already.

“Even in the first term, I and others are making strides in our leadership development goals,” Griffin said.

Contact Gazette-Times reporter Gail Cole at 541-758-9510 or

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