A Brave Decade: Global Resource Systems Major Celebrates 10 Years of Impact

by Brian Meyer, CALS Communications Service

Ten years ago, it seemed an uphill battle to debut a new, untested major — global resource systems — into the portfolio of academic programs offered by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University.

Group photo of GRS alums
Celebrating 10 years of the GRS major were alums of the program, including (first row) Natalie Bidner, Dana Jensen, Emily Zimmerman, Jennifer Lillo, Celize Christy; (second row) Rebeca Clay, Lea Hoefer, Andrew Stanzyk, Laura Weieneth, Moriah Morgan; (back row) Sam Bird, Nate Looker, Katie Taylor and Jake Swanson. 
Not pictured: Ellen Franzenburg. 
All photos courtesy of Brian Nonnecke

Would it survive?

A decade later, GRS has not only survived but thrived. On Oct. 2, CALS held a 10th anniversary celebration in the Scheman Building with 125 faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors, including ISU President Wendy Wintersteen. A dinner was preceded by a poster session with 35 current GRS students telling stories about their global internships.

Listening in on one set of conversations at one of the dinner tables, you could hear tales of adventure from Uganda, Guatemala, Canada and other countries; hopes of current students to secure graduate research positions at prestigious schools around the country; and hometown stories that led students to enroll at Iowa State and this one-of-a-kind major.

Bravery and commitment

The 10-year journey of the global resource systems major has been marked by bravery and commitment from everyone involved, recalled Gail Nonnecke.

“Global resource systems was an unproven concept, even though we’d tested pieces of it through an exploratory program in 2005 and a pilot service learning program in Uganda in 2006,” said Nonnecke, the faculty coordinator for the major and holder of the Global Professorship in Global Resource Systems.

“GRS was a difficult curriculum designed to take an interdisciplinary and systems approach to understanding complex global resource issues,” Nonnecke said. “It pushed requirements in ways we hadn’t pushed students before. What if it didn’t work?”

Gail Nonnecke, GRS faculty coordinator

The timing was less than opportune, too. The GRS major was approved to move forward in 2008, the year the Great Recession began melting down economies around the world.

“But our worldview was — all is possible,” recalled Nonnecke. “We were amazed at the brave students who embraced the major. We even had students eager to try it out, who knew the major was coming and waited to enroll, holding off until it was officially launched in the fall of 2009.”

The major drew strength from the collaboration with multiple departments, attracting double majors from within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and other ISU colleges.

A hard sell? Not for CALS

At another university, a major with no proven track record may have been a hard sell for administrators and potential donors to invest in. But not for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and its supporters.

“We’re so proud we had donors who stepped up and bankrolled this little start-up we called GRS,” said David Acker, associate dean for academic and global programs. “It was untested and a little ‘out there.’ But they trusted the college and our faculty to develop a valuable addition to our family of majors.”

An early champion of the major was Dean Wendy Wintersteen, now the 16th president of Iowa State University. “Back then, Dean Wintersteen got behind it immediately and has supported it for years,” said Acker. “Interim Dean Joe Colletti and our current Dean Dan Robison joined the list of leaders supporting the program.”

Incredible decade of impact

An incredible decade of impact is how President Wintersteen describes the GRS journey.

“Iowa State’s goal is to make the world a better place, and GRS helps us to just that,” said Wintersteen. “It really was the leadership of Dr. Acker and Dr. Nonnecke and their team of faculty and staff who were the real visionaries. They developed something in GRS so totally different than any other major — a global view where the U.S. cooperates with other nations to solve problems; a reliance on science to guide our decision-making; and a strong commitment to our Principles of Community.”

Over the past decade, 235 students have completed GRS internships in 45 countries on six continents. GRS students have a reputation as high achievers. To date, more than 40 percent of GRS students have graduated with distinction — a GPA of 3.5 or higher. The placement rate after graduation is as good as it gets — 100 percent.

Successful alumni

Many GRS alumni have gone on to influential positions and earned graduate degrees from prestigious schools. For example:

  • One is a leader in Embarc, an Iowa nonprofit organization that recently received a $175,000 Google Impact Award plus $125,000 as a Google People’s Choice Award — a total of $300,000 for its work to fund education and job services for Iowa’s refugee families.
  • One is an economics faculty member at Luther College.
  • One completed medical school at the University of Chicago and is now training to be a surgeon.
  • Another earned a master’s in public health from Emory University and now advises Iowa’s Office of the Governor on agricultural policy.
  • One is completing a Ph.D. in soil, water and climate at the University of Minnesota, with hopes of eventually working at an international agricultural research center in South America.
  • And one, Emily Zimmerman, returned to Iowa State to join the faculty in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management and now teaches GRS courses and conducts research in environmental science.

The planet needs more GRS students

Jerry and Karen Kolschowsky have been among the strongest supporters and benefactors for GRS since the beginning. “In the future, the global resource systems program must grow as more students realize how important it is to have both technical and global skills,” said Jerry Kolschowsky. “More importantly, it must grow because the type of graduate that GRS produces is needed today more than ever before, given the condition of our planet.”

Current global resource systems students who presented posters on their global internships at the Oct. 3 event.

Todd and Lori Hill have been longtime supporters and donors to GRS. “The students really are the electricity that powers the program,” said Todd Hall. “They’re energizing. Being around them makes me wish I were back in college. We were intrigued by the passion and intellectual curiosity they put forth. That, and the fact the college and university were 100 percent behind GRS, said a lot.”

Acker read a letter from another GRS donor, Kathleen Manatt, who with her late husband Charles, was an early supporter. Manatt wrote that every fall she and her daughter Michele return to campus to visit with current GRS students. “It is such a pleasure and very rewarding to us to meet the students in person and hear their reports and stories of their experiences during the internships. They truly are ambassadors from the United States around the world,” she wrote.

Acker said he’s traveled around the world telling academic leaders in other lands about the GRS major.

“In the Midwest we tend not to brag, but I tell them we are absolutely certain we have a successful model that’s been tested for 10 years,” said Acker. “I tell them our students don’t think in terms of Iowa first or America first, but rather they think of Earth first. How do we build sustainable resource systems so that everyone benefits.”

Breathtaking impact

The impact of the past 10 years hit home for Nonnecke as she reviewed a list of over 300 names of current and former GRS students.

“I literally stopped breathing,” she said. “I thought: Wow! It actually does take one’s breath away to think about how each student and their accomplishments, and how the major has grown over the years. I expect the next 10 years will take our breath away, too, as GRS alumni and students continue to improve resource systems for the world.”

— October 8, 2019