Oh, the Places She Went!

By Susan Thompson

Denise Bjelland painted portrait
This portrait of Denise Bjelland was painted by Katesi Jacqueline, a local artist in the Kamuli District of Uganda.

After 47 years working at Iowa State University, Denise Collins Bjelland retired earlier this month. Listening to the many things she did in those 47 years is reminiscent of the book "Oh, the Places You'll Go!," written and illustrated by children’s author Dr. Seuss.

Bjelland was the director of Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Global Agriculture Programs office since 2011, and involved in international activities since 1991.  

An Iowa farm girl from Hubbard, Bjelland says nothing specific piqued her interest in international study and work. “I boarded an airplane for the first time shortly after high school graduation to spend the summer with family friends in California. My dad was adventuresome, and although we did not travel outside the United States, his adventurous spirit was contagious,” she says.

In her early 20s, she embarked on her first international trip, backpacking through England, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and France with a friend.

She started working at Iowa State in 1973 after completing a one-year secretarial program at the American Institute of Business in Des Moines and working two years at the Iowa Department of Education. From 1976 to 1991, Bjelland worked in Beardshear Hall.

Education journey begins in Beardshear 

“The 15 years I worked in university administration, first with the vice president for business and then in the office of the president, provided a front-row seat to how the university operates,” she says. “The organizational structure of the university, what each administrative division is responsible for, the role of the Board of Regents, why the university needs accounting and procurement policies were more interesting than it might seem.”

During her time in the president’s office, she decided to study for a bachelor’s degree in communications studies, which she earned in 1976, followed by a master’s in international development in 2001.

“I studied for my two degrees while working full time,” Bjelland says. “I credit my supervisors at Iowa State with challenging me to take on new tasks and assuring me I was smart enough to tackle college. The sociology lecturer in my first undergrad class as a nontraditional student will never know how she encouraged me with a note on my term paper, “You are a good student…keep up the good work.”

In 1991, Bjelland moved to the CALS global programs office to work on facilitating the nomination and selection process of the World Food Prize Laureate. Iowa State served as the Secretariat for the first 10 years after the Prize moved to Des Moines.  

Interest in international work grows 

“Our role was to solicit, receive and organize nominating materials for potential World Food Prize Laureates, then present the nominations to an anonymous eight-member selection committee made up of world leaders in food security. Dr. Norman Borlaug, the only non-anonymous member of the committee, served as chair,” she says.

“It was an amazing privilege to sit in the same room with these global experts while they reviewed the nominations and selected laureates who had made outstanding lifetime contributions to the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world,” Bjelland says. “It didn’t take me long after observing and learning from these great food security experts to change my undergraduate major to include international studies.”

Soon, Bjelland also began serving as a fiscal manager for both CALS and Iowa State’s College of Business (now known as the Debbie and Jerry Ivy College of Business), monitoring expenditures of $50 million worth of federally funded grants, cooperative agreements and donor contributions in Eastern Europe, Asia, India, Latin America and Africa.

“My first involvement in international grant projects was a program in Czechoslovakia just two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” Bjelland says. “That was followed by programs in Russia and Ukraine. Other grant-funded programs over the years were in China, India, Romania, Bulgaria and Ghana.” 

Joins CALS global programs office 

Bjelland was a part of the CALS Global Agriculture Programs (GAP) office since 1991. She was a program coordinator until 1999, assistant director until 2004, associate director until 2011, and office director since then until her retirement.

“The goal of the Global Programs Office is to help our faculty infuse a global perspective into their research, teaching and outreach,” says Bjelland. “The global programs staff does this by working with faculty to promote study abroad and to ensure a successful program; connecting visiting scholars with ISU faculty; and assisting with grant writing, budgeting, and managing international grants. 

Bjelland says the CALS Guidelines for Engagement in Developing Countries addresses the importance of global programs for the college.

“It is important for our students to be well prepared to become effective global citizens as employees, employers, public leaders and stakeholders,” she says. “Cross-cultural partnerships are critical for globally mobile faculty, staff and students—and graduates and alumni. The Global Programs Office is all about facilitating that mission.”

Bjelland says one special thing she enjoyed is programs that bring students to Iowa State for graduate degrees. “I had the privilege of interacting with these students throughout their time at Iowa State,” she says. “Many of them became dear friends and part of my family, and I still am in touch with many of them.”

Creating a model to help those in need 

Bjelland acquired another job title in December 2015, when she was named director of the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL), a research-oriented center within CALS. Since 2003, CSRL has worked side-by-side with residents of the Kamuli District in Uganda to discover and implement sustainable solutions to meeting the community’s most urgent needs. Starting with farmer training, the center has evolved into programming that touches every stage of the life cycle.

“This program has had such an incredible impact on improving the lives of women, children, and farming communities in Kamuli,” Bjelland says. “At Iowa State, the CSRL team consists of an administrative team, and four Iowa State professors who work closely with the ISU-Uganda Program staff in areas related to education, livestock, nutrition, post-harvest and natural resource management, and youth entrepreneurship.” 

The ISU-Uganda Program staff in Kamuli work collaboratively day in and day out with the communities. The new Mpirigiti Rural Training Centre that opened in 2018 and is now the ISU-UP headquarters in Kamuli includes demonstration sites for livestock, gardens, and post-harvest, and includes dormitory-style housing for students and faculty/staff.

David Acker, newly appointed CALS associate dean for global engagement and director of CSRL, and Raymond and Mary Baker Chair in Global Agriculture, worked with Bjelland for nearly 25 years.

“Denise grew professionally during her tenure in Global Programs, adding a master’s degree and experience on almost every continent. Her leadership skills and people skills meant that everyone wanted to work with her,” Acker says. “She has always been the type of person who wishes to be judged on what she has accomplished, rather than what she has to say.”

Acker says Bjelland “opened doors to many countries for faculty, staff and students. And she brought in millions of dollars in grants to help boost the internationalization of CALS.”

As CSRL director, Acker says Bjelland was involved with impacting the lives of more than 60,000 people. “Her legacy with CSRL will be a high functioning organization that has developed a model for efficiently helping people move out of poverty,” he says.

Reflections on her career 

International travels have taken Bjelland to 20 countries, with multiple visits to several.

“Each place has been special, not because of a postcard perfect landscape or an incredible historical or cultural site, although there have been many of those,” she says. “Each has been special because of the incredible people I’ve interacted with in each country on the various projects I’ve been involved with. I’ve been blessed to have had an opportunity to meet and work with each of them.”

In retirement, Bjelland says she is looking forward to a more relaxed schedule and spending more time with her husband, Don. “He has been my biggest cheerleader over the past 41 years.  He and our now 40-year old son, Derek, spent many days and weeks fending for themselves while I was in class, studying or traveling,” she says.

Don was able to participate in some trips, including China, Russia, South Africa, and Norway, where his father emigrated from to the United States at the age of 20. “We have good memories of those trips and talk about them often,” Bjelland says.

Bjelland says she will miss her colleagues in the Global Programs and CSRL offices. “They each have contributed to a harmonious and productive workplace,” she says. “They are an amazingly talented team of professionals who are devoted to the CALS global mission.”