A new internship program will not only help college students gain practical experience, but will also help the interns’ future students and reduce Illinois teacher shortages.

An inaugural agricultural education internship program, administered by Richland Community College, will launch in June. It’s designed for college upperclassmen studying to become agriculture teachers. Eight students attending four state universities were selected for nine-week internships tailored for them.

“The idea is to recruit and retain more agriculture teachers. One way to improve that is to give (college) students real-world work experience and give them experience they identified as a need,” said Jess Smithers, Richland’s agriculture program director who is overseeing the internship program.

Ag education curriculum teaches a broad range of subjects from ag mechanics and animal science to agronomy and agribusiness. This can be particularly difficult for ag teachers without a farm background. However, real-world experience can give teachers more confidence in their weaker subjects.

All intern applicants identified subjects in which they wanted practical experience.

For example, crop science experience was requested. “A lot do not come from a crop production background,” Smithers said. A student wanting more crop experience might job shadow at an FS company or get first-hand experience working with an area farmer, he added.

Several applicants indicated they want more agricultural mechanics experience.

“Many ag teachers are expected to teach a course in ag mechanics, and we’ll expose them to those skills and hands-on work in welding and other areas,” Smithers said. “This program is a way for us to offer internships specifically for agriculture students who want to be teachers. We’re excited. I think this will be very impactful.”

Laurel Keyt, a Western Illinois University (WIU) agriculture education major from Hanna City, said she looks forward to an opportunity to improve her skills.

“The more knowledge I can gain before I start teaching, the better able I am to help my students receive a more rounded education and also give me the basic tools to help them explore their passions within the agriculture industry,” Keyt said.

The program is funded through the ag education line item in the state budget, and interns will receive a stipend, according to Smithers. The Illinois State Board of Education and agricultural education organizations identified an internship initiative as a need to address the shortage of ag teachers.

Previously, ag education groups raised an issue of ag education graduates wooed to ag industry jobs; some after they completed industry internships. Among ag ed supporters, the thought was an internship for future ag teachers would provide professional development and give them confidence as new teachers.

While eight interns will participate this first year, Smithers said plans are to expand the program to 16 interns next year and to 28 the following year.

In addition to Keyt, the first interns and their universities include: Maggie Biffar and Alexis Carroll, both Southern Illinois University; Zoey Dye, Emily Friese and Kennedi Knackmuhs, all University of Illinois; Nik Hanson, Illinois State University; and Luke Jesgarz, WIU.

“I am grateful for this opportunity to get more real-world experience before starting my career as an agriculture teacher,” said Jesgarz, a junior from Shelbyville. “I am glad to be given this insight into more of what goes into becoming an agriculture teacher.”