Panhandle Perspectives: Panhandle Center welcomes first group of Indian students for an immersive educational experience in the American agricultural system

Lincoln, Neb. — Four undergraduate students from Assam Agricultural University in India have arrived in Scottsbluff, where they will spend about two months studying American agriculture — from tractor technology to federal politics from Washington.

This cohort is the first group of approximately 40 Indian students who will spend time studying in Nebraska this spring. They are under the auspices of ICAR, the National Agricultural Higher Education Project (NAHEP) of the Government of India. designed to strengthen the national agricultural education system in India to provide more relevant and high quality education to agricultural university students.

The connection to Scottsbluff came from a faculty member at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Panhandle Center for Research, Extension and Education, Dipak Santra, the specialist in alternative crop breeding. Santra, who came from India, was visiting his family several years ago when he tied up with several universities there.

While at Scottsbluff, students will be exposed to a wide variety of people and organizations involved in America’s food, fiber, and energy industry. Their two-month program includes an orientation, several weeks of research, a tour of the UNL Lincoln campus, time to interact with regional private sector agricultural producers and companies, and reporting on their experience in Nebraska. .

“The primary interest of students is to learn about American agricultural technology systems, agricultural policy, the role of public universities in production agriculture, and private agricultural industries,” Santra said. “They want to learn about how university professors and scientists participate in applied agricultural research and extension to support American farmers and their families. They also want to know more about federal policy in support of US agriculture, as well as the agricultural marketing system.

Students have many questions about American agriculture; for example, average farm size, what it’s like to live on a farm, and rural culture and festivals.

India’s NAHEP program promotes efficiency and competitiveness in the country’s agricultural universities and the recruitment of talented students.

During a visit to India in 2019, Santra visited the Agricultural University of Assam (AAU) – where the first group of students came from and where he attended graduate school – and the University of Orissa Agriculture and Technology (OUAT). He met with university administrators and professors to explore research and training collaborations. India’s NAHEP project was created to launch this type of research training opportunity, he said.

After returning to Scottsbluff, Santra stayed in touch and worked out an agreement between these universities and UNL for a student and faculty exchange program for intensive training, research, and education. A general memorandum of understanding between these universities and the UNL was established in 2019-20.

Under the auspices of the NAHEP program, Santra hosted nine OUAT undergraduate agronomy and veterinary science students at the Panhandle Center for two months in early 2020. The veterinary students were trained and supervised by the retired director of the Panhandle Center Jack Whittier and Dale M. Grotelueschen, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Animal Science at UNL.

Then the COVID pandemic brought other student groups to a halt, but exchanges are now expected to resume. The first group of four students arrived on January 31. A second group, made up of veterinary science students, arrives on March 1st. A third group (agricultural engineering) will come to Lincoln from March to the end of April. The last group (agricultural sciences) is expected to arrive at the Panhandle Center in April. Number of students and exact dates may vary depending on COVID and their visas.

Santra said the program is made possible by a long list of investigators, coordinators and mentors. The lead investigators and coordinator (who manage the program, organize housing and logistics, and other duties) are Santra and Bijesh Maharjan, soil and nutrient management specialist at the Panhandle Center. The on-site coordinators are Santra in Agricultural Sciences; Whittier in Veterinary Science; and Chittaranjan Ray, director, Nebraska Water Center, in agricultural engineering.

Mentors include Santra; Maharjan; Jeff Bradshaw, entomologist at the Panhandle Center; Whittier; Ray; Grotelueschen; Xin Qiao, water management and irrigation specialist at the Panhandle Center; Mitch Stephenson, range and forage management specialist at the Panhandle Center; Pablo Loza, beef feedlot specialist at the Panhandle Center; Santosh Pitla, Advanced Machinery Systems, Biological Systems Engineering, UNL; Yeyin Shi, Agricultural Information System Engineer, Biological Systems Engineering, UNL; and Tirthankar Roy, civil and environmental engineering, UNL.

After returning to India and completing their university studies, some students plan to carry out research, some will go to the academy to teach, others plan to join the private sector (in fields such as equipment or marketing), and many students hope to join government service.

“Thus, the students will apply all this training and knowledge acquired in their future jobs in India,” Santra said. “Their overall goal is to use this training to help Indian farmers and Indian agriculture.”

With this collaborative relationship in place with Indian agricultural universities, Santra plans to continue the partnership with Panhandle Center specialists and UNL faculty for years to come.

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