A race track industry major, University of Arizona sophomore Hillary Neese had never set foot in a pumpkin patch.
Neese, a student ambassador in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is now spending afternoons harvesting pumpkins, identifying insects and learning what it takes to grow a crop.
"I'm expanding my knowledge of agriculture," she said as she picked pumpkins at the UA Campus Agricultural Center, 4101 N. Campbell Ave.
Neese is one of 20 student ambassadors in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, or CALS. The ambassadors represent the future of agriculture and life sciences, serving as peer recruiters and promoting CALS programs.
Ambassadors come in contact with more than 6,000 Arizona residents each year as they visit schools, industry organizations, career functions, communities and alumni events, spreading the word about all that the college has to offer.
Along the way, they learn leadership and communication skills that make them highly employable, said Frank Santiago, assistant director of recruitment and student services and adviser to the ambassadors.
"The ambassador program is the premiere leadership program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences," he said.
So how does working in a pumpkin patch promote leadership?
The supervised agricultural experience offers the student ambassadors a glimpse into an area of agriculture unfamiliar to most. With majors that span from retailing and consumer sciences to nutritional sciences to family studies and human development, some CALS students are not familiar with more traditional agriculture fields.
To become effective CALS representatives, the ambassadors learn about the vast array of college offerings.
"Two-thirds of our students are not in traditional ag majors," Santiago said. "Here they get the full agricultural experience and see first-hand the effort and work it takes to get a pumpkin."
Santiago came up with the idea for the pumpkin patch last year. Seed was donated by Mike Didier, who owns Select Seed of Arizona in Yuma.
The ambassadors work the half-acre, densely planted field, harvesting hundreds of ripe pumpkins and experiencing some of the challenges of growing a crop. Some pumpkins sat in water and rotted. Others competed with weeds for resources. Then there were the bees to contend with.
Ambassadors scored some of the tiny, green pumpkins with the block A or the face of Wilbur. As the pumpkins grow, the images grow with them.
Some will be sold at UA Homecoming, Nov. 7-9. Others were given to children who attended the Harvest Festival at Tucson Village Farm on Nov. 16. Tucson Village Farm is a program of CALS.
As a freshman in agricultural technology management and education, Mariah McNevins, 18, is new to the ambassador program.
"It's been a great way to get involved with the college," she said.
Animal sciences junior Kyra Williams, 21, is in her second year as an ambassador.
"We are like a big family," Williams said. "It's like my home away from home. And I like to get to know about other people's majors and talk to people in the community about what is available."
Cody Benton, 22 and a junior in agribusiness economics and management, is "hoping to inspire students to get involved in the college."
Santiago said the program started in 1992 with the goal of developing student leaders.
"We have focused in the last few years on developing leadership and career readiness, team building, public speaking and communication skills by representing the college to alums, industry, the outside community and other students," Santiago said.
Ambassadors play a special role with first-generation college students, helping them see the opportunities in CALS.
"They serve as peer mentors, helping them feel comfortable approaching professors with questions, and just keeping students from falling by the wayside," Santiago said.
Ambassadors volunteer at school and industry events, and will work at Homecoming, volunteering at the Dean's "Almost World Famous" Burrito Breakfast and Alumni Auction. They help run live and silent auctions and connect with alumni.
They also organize high school events and community college visits and recently hosted visiting UA students from the Yuma campus.
Ambassadors volunteer a minimum of 25 hours a semester, but some put in as many as 140 hours a semester. The program provides a gateway to internships that can lead to employment, Santiago said.
"Through the program, students develop the skills that employers are looking for," Santiago said. "Industry leaders seek ambassadors to join their team. They know our students will have more of the employability skills they are looking for."
Ambassador Tyler Bowen worked in an internship at Pioneer Hi-Bred International in Deming, N.M., last summer. The junior in agricultural technology management and education is developing his public speaking skills through the ambassador program.
"I didn't realize how good school could be," Bowen said. "Now the people in the ambassador program are my best friends."