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From strangers to business partners in 10 weeks: Internship provides fertile ground for seeds of collaboration

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Posted: November 15, 2016

Interdisciplinarity is a hallmark of the EFSNE project, so it’s fitting that the project’s most recent interns—two Penn State students from very different majors—found learning from each other to be an important part of the internship experience.
EFSNE Project interns Hayly Hoch, left, and Alyssa Gurklis.

EFSNE Project interns Hayly Hoch, left, and Alyssa Gurklis.

Alyssa Gurklis, a Community, Environment, and Development major, came to the internship to expand her understanding of how food and agriculture can serve as a mechanism for bringing people together around an issue. Hayly Hoch, a Plant Sciences major, was interested in rounding out her technical agriculture training with a more informed perspective on the health, economic, and social aspects of sustainable food systems.

Although they didn’t know each other at the time, their interests led them to the same place—Penn State Extension-Allegheny County’s office in Pittsburgh, PA—for a 10-week food-system internship. Their dissimilar academic backgrounds were an unplanned bonus.

“It’s really important when you’re working in food systems to at least be familiar with those different angles or aspects,” said Gurklis. “We came to the same issues from different angles, so getting to talk to [Hayly] about how food is grown was a really important and valuable part of my internship experience.”

Hoch agreed. “A lot my confidence in being able to talk about food systems issues comes from the countless conversations [Alyssa] and I had about her perspective and where she’s coming from,” she said.

Summer in the city

Under the guidance of their field supervisor, Penn State Extension Educator and EFSNE Consumption Team member Heather Manzo, the women worked together on three distinct projects. One major undertaking was working in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood on an EFSNE outreach initiative, revamping and reprinting the Beechview centennial cookbook as a way to unite and give voice to members of the community who come from varied immigrant backgrounds. The students solicited new recipes from Beechview residents, local food producers, and retailers in the neighborhood, to reflect the foodways of community members’ diverse ethnic backgrounds. The updated cookbook, which the students produced, was released during Beechview’s 110th anniversary celebration—an event that Penn State Extension organized in collaboration with community leaders and the Beechview Historical Society.

Two women in kitchen with canning jars.

Gurklis and Hoch also assisted with a Penn State Extension workshop series called “Urban Homesteading,” designed for do-it-yourselfers interested in sustainable food and living practices. The women were immersed in all aspects of the program marketing and implementation, from writing press releases to conducting social media campaigns to organizing and facilitating workshops.

They rounded out their community-based work by participating in meetings of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, which Manzo chairs. The pair witnessed how policy is shaped and changed when community members are engaged to voice needs and concerns to government. All the while, they remained engaged academically with Penn State Professor of Rural Sociology and EFSNE Team Member Clare Hinrichs, who provided academic supervision, along with Sarah Rocker, a Penn State doctoral candidate in Rural Sociology and student member of EFSNE who helped to coordinate the interns’ placement in Pittsburgh and support their learning experience throughout the summer. The interns posted weekly reflections to a private blog, which facilitated interactions between the interns, their site-based supervisors, and their academic supervisors.

Key takeaways

Now more than a year later, the Penn State seniors have the benefit of hindsight to identify what aspects of the internship were most valuable for them. The answer is inextricably linked with their involvement in Penn State’s recently launched Student Farm and Sustainable Food System Program. Hoch is one of the co-founders and co-directors of the Student Farm Club, and Gurklis is the Club’s internal development director and the program’s communications and outreach intern.

They each played instrumental roles in establishing the farm, which took more than two years of tireless work, and included high-visibility activities like lobbying University leaders for support and making presentations at a number of venues to engage stakeholders. Hoch feels the internship directly contributed to their success in this effort.

“Having the capacity to communicate what the vision is and what the priorities are and how it relates to someone who maybe has never considered agriculture...that’s a skill set that I really feel came from our time in Pittsburgh,” said Hoch. That capacity came through multiple avenues, she said, “from marketing the urban homesteading series workshops, to sitting in on Pittsburgh Food Policy Council meetings and hearing how those priorities and goals were communicated, to the language used in the EFSNE project.”

Similarly, Gurklis valued the “realistic take on what working with communities looks like.” She discovered that engagement can be non-linear, and that getting a feel for a community takes time.

Above and beyond

The story could easily end there, but the women were intent on extracting even more value from the experience. “We realized we learned so much and we didn’t want this experience to end or be a singular event,” said Hoch, adding that she and Gurklis wondered, “How can we use what we’ve learned here and help shape our campus community?”

Their answer came as an idea hatched in their shared cubicle: a collaborative approach to learning how to cook, which they would take to Penn State’s University Park campus.

“These two are a dream team, a dynamic duo of skills, talent, and keen instinct for applied community work. The ‘Cooking Collaborative’ and the cookbook are two examples of going above and beyond expectations, adding a richness to the Extension projects and the academic objectives outlined at the outset.”

—Heather Manzo

With encouragement from their supervisors and Extension colleagues, their idea evolved into a tangible program that they launched upon their return to campus. Aptly named, the “Cooking Collaborative” brings people together to cook and share a meal that uses locally sourced ingredients. Unlike a cooking demonstration, participants don’t fall into a student or teacher role, but that doesn’t mean learning isn’t taking place.

“A lot of college students don’t cook, and I think that’s because they think they don’t know how,” Gurklis said. “The goal of this program was to show people that you don’t have to be an expert to be able to cook and we can all learn from each other and learn by doing it together.”

The Cooking Collaborative enjoyed a two-semester run, and is currently on hold while the women search for a permanent venue where they can host the events. But Gurklis and Hoch are intent on reviving it before they leave Penn State. Their hope is that it will be carried on by future students who are as passionate as they are about bringing people together around food.

A group on people gathered around a kitchen workspace, working through a recipe together.

An event in the pair's Cooking Collaborative workshop series.