Thursday, April 9, 2009
A future in production:
K-STATE STUDENT EARNS FOOD SCIENCE BACHELOR'S DEGREE ONLINE, CARVES OUT NICHE IN FOOD SCIENCE INDUSTRY
MANHATTAN -- The food science industry can be demanding. For young professionals, getting ahead may mean going back to school, and that's just what Nathan Smit did through Kansas State University's online bachelor's degree in food science.
Smit, Albert Lea, Minn., said he was always interested in science, but the nearest food science program was hours away. He earned an associate degree from Riverland Community College, where he studied to be an environmental lab technician. After three years of food testing at Tyson Foods in Albert Lea, Smit transitioned to Hormel Foods in Austin, Minn., where he found himself surrounded by K-State alumni.
"Hormel hires quite a few K-Staters, and the quality of their education is apparent -- just by working with them, you can tell," Smit said. "Every K-Stater who I've met has been very nice and supportive, and they share their knowledge in an effort to try and make people around them better."
Because of the enthusiasm of his co-workers and his growing interest in food science, Smit began to envision a career on the production side of the industry. But, as is common in the professional world, entry-level positions in the field required a bachelor's degree at the very least. A K-State alumnus mentioned that his alma mater offered an online degree in the program, but Smit was a little leery of the idea.
"Five years ago, you had people questioning the idea of getting a degree online. I didn't want my degree to be a joke," he said.
But the professionalism, knowledge and constant encouragement put forth by the K-Staters that surrounded him every day, as well as the influence of some of the university's top food scientists -- like Melvin Hunt, professor and undergraduate program chair of food science at K-State, who had visited Hormel for the purpose of food testing -- convinced Smit to go out on a limb and give K-State distance education a try.
"One of my co-workers, who earned his master's from K-State, gave me continuous support when I decided to go back to school. He'd even quiz me on information, encouraging me to look further into ideas or processes," Smit said. "I was very happy about the fact that I was able to attend a quality university everybody knew, a place where I would receive a first-rate education from first-rate instructors at the top of their fields."
Smit started out slow, taking just one class in the fall semester and one during a January intersession, working his way through the plan that K-State's Deanna Retzlaff, assistant professor and food science distance program coordinator, put together. But Smit realized at that rate, his degree would take nearly a decade to complete, even with the credits he was able to transfer from his associate degree. So, he stepped it up a notch. And while having a full-time job and being a full-time student wasn't exactly easy, Smit was pleased with the way the information he was learning online clicked into place on the job.
"I used knowledge gained in my classes to help create new food products at work," he said.
Smit graduated with his bachelor's degree in food science in December 2008. He even came to Manhattan to take part in commencement, and found that the experience of walking across the stage in front of a coliseum full of people was everything he'd imagined it to be.
"It was one of the most proud moments of my life," Smit said. "When you go back to school, sometimes it seems like you're never going to finish, but you just have to visualize your goal. Visualizing walking down that aisle and getting my diploma is what helped me get it done."
Since earning his degree, Smit has been promoted from senior research and development technician to associate food scientist in the product and process development section of Hormel Foods. He also has three patents pending on food products and processes he has developed since then.
He regularly extols the virtues of K-State's distance education program to anyone who comes asking for advice on continuing education.
"Completing my degree has inspired other employees to go back to school. Sometimes people I don't even know approach me and ask for information on Kansas State," Smit said. "It's motivation for them because I rose up from humble beginnings to become an associate scientist. And I tell them that any online program at K-State is going to be one of the best there is.
"I don't know how to thank the faculty and staff at K-State in the food science department. Because how do you say more than thanks? They've helped me get to where I am, and the program has changed my life," Smit said.