Four Alumni Return to Pass on Advice

June 17, 2016

By Echo Martin

As Jack Pahl (B.S. Horticulture ’14) picks up a slice of pizza and heads to the table at the front of 310 Alderman Hall, he admits this is the first time he’s been back to campus since his graduation. Since leaving the U he’s been hard at work at Pahl’s Market Garden Center in Apple Valley, where he’s learning the ropes to manage the 6th-generation family-owned farm. What brought him back for his first visit to Saint Paul was the chance to sit on the department’s inaugural alumni panel to share with students the the lessons he’s learned since graduation.

Pahl is the first to arrive, but it’s not long before the other panelists enter the room, joined by current undergraduate and graduate students, staff, and faculty. It’s mid-April and the question “What happens after graduation?” is on everyone’s mind. Chris Tritabaugh (B.S. Animal & Plant Systems ’01) readily offers his frank perspective about his time at the U and shortly after.

“I was a terrible student,” Tritabaugh admits to the crowd right away, the sentiment met with appreciative laughs. “I wasn’t really mentally ready for college when I was here.” As Tritabaugh has risen to a prestigious position as superintendent of Hazeltine Golf Course, site of the 2016 Ryder Cup, his comments give hope to struggling students. Despite his admission, he still reflects back on his time here fondly, “The knowledge I gained here and the relationships with Extension have been invaluable.”

[[{"attributes":{},"fields":{}}]]His sentiments are echoed by panelist Bailey Webster (B.S. Horticulture ’13), the owner of Four O’Clock Farm, an organic farm she started up in Prescott, WI shortly after graduation. “My internship had more hands-on farming experience than my other classes did, but what I did get was the ‘why’ behind what I’m doing on the farm. Knowing the science behind what I do helps me to be a better farmer.” Even though her farm is based in Wisconsin, she often turns to U of M Extension for advice, or to her college mentors.

[[{"attributes":{},"fields":{}}]]Attendees ask a variety of questions about how to set themselves apart, what classes were most useful for panelists, and more specific questions about the panelists’ current jobs. The students interested in graduate school turn to Alex Susko (B.S. Horticulture ’13) to learn how the experience might be different from getting their undergraduate degree. Susko is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in plant breeding and molecular genetics under Stan Hokanson and Jim Bradeen in the Applied Plant Sciences program. He works extensively in the southern United States—with field research from Arkansas to Florida and a collaborating USDA lab in Mississippi—and is currently completing a fellowship at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University.

Susko’s biggest advice for students was to get as much experience as possible. “Every activity you do while you’re in school will give you a different experience. If you’re interested in starting a business, become the secretary for a student club so you know more about handling finances. You can do a UROP, volunteer at events, take internships, and all of it helps you get skills that you can use later and network with people you won’t meet if you just take classes.”

After the panel concluded, alumni had some time to answer student questions one-on-one and speak with faculty members they hadn’t seen in years. Current student Liam Genter (B.S. Plant Science ’16) reflected on the panel, “It was nice to see and hear about what happens after graduation from a diverse group of alumni. Hearing everyone talk about their career and academic paths, including their various struggles and hardships, was really inspiring and by far the thing that will stick with me the most.” Armed with the advice from those who have gone before them, the class of 2016 is moving onto the next stage of their careers a little more prepared for what faces them.