Living History: Ushering In A New Era In Agricultural Education

As Antoine Alston shares his journey from North Carolina to Iowa State and back he includes African Americans’ contributions to agricultural education throughout history. It’s clear their stories are his stories, too.

Every story he tells in his animated Southern drawl reveals his reverence for the past. Carving out his place in history rests upon his shoulders as an opportunity and a responsibility he takes seriously.

Alston (PhD ’00 agricultural education) is the interim associate dean for academic studies at North Carolina A&T State University and a professor of agricultural education.

Alston proudly shares how his grandfather attended a segregated high school in North Carolina and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the Delaware State University in dairy science—an accomplishment of exceptional merit for an African American in 1939. Alston’s father was his high school agriculture teacher and his mother a third grade teacher.

One of his stories includes his role as caretaker of the New Farmer Association (NFA) archives.

“The New Farmers Association was like the black FFA. For my father, like many African Americans with a rural interest, the NFA provided the first introduction to college through animal judging and plant identification contests,” Alston says. “Ensuring careful stewardship of the organization’s archives is part of my legacy.”

Created in the 1930s, the NFA was merged with the FFA in 1965 as a result of the Civil Rights Act.

Tradition of warm welcomes

Alston earned his undergraduate degree at North Carolina A&T State University in 1996. He was drawn to Iowa State University in 1998 by its “stellar reputation” and the recently launched George Washington Carver Fellowship Program. He also was impressed by the College of Agriculture and Life Science’s commitment to supporting minority populations.

“You can’t have a conversation about agriculture without Iowa State University— whether it be agricultural research or the historical advancements of the industry,” Alston says. “It also has a reputation for high minority graduation rates and welcoming African American students with open arms. That’s one reason I refer so many of my own students to Iowa State.” Alston studied under agricultural education professors Wade Miller and Greg Miller and also worked with department mainstay Harold Crawford, emeritus professor. He says their teachings relate to every day of his career.

“Antoine was a serious student with clear goals about what he wanted from the Ph.D. program and where he was headed professionally,” says Greg Miller. “Antoine has been an outstanding member of the discipline and his accomplishments in teaching, research and service certainly justify his meteoric rise as a professor.”

Alston was the first George Washington Carver Fellow to graduate with a doctorate. He was just 24 when he defended his dissertation. Since then, the Iowa State fellowship program has provided full tuition to 34 master’s and doctoral candidates from underrepresented populations with preference given to those from traditionally black or Hispanic serving institutions.

Dynamic diamonds in the rough

After earning his doctorate at Iowa State in 2000, Alston joined the faculty at North Carolina A&T as an assistant professor that same year. Since then he’s earned tenure and served as coordinator of agricultural education graduate and undergraduate programs.

“I came back to North Carolina because that is where my heart is. Historically black institutions have a tradition for taking diamonds in the rough and molding them into dynamic individuals,” Alston says.

Alston says one benefit of a smaller department is the opportunity to teach “everything” which for him includes rural leadership, instructional technology, diversity and inclusion. He has created fifteen online courses.

Former advisee and current colleague Chastity Warren English credits Alston for helping her complete her thesis project and inspiring her to take on a doctorate program.

“He was there to the very end to make sure that I accomplished this goal. And he has done the same for so many students over the years,” Warren English says. “He is a true champion for agriculture, students and higher education.”

During his tenure at A&T Alston moved the agricultural education master’s program online and grew the program’s notoriety. It earned a spot in the top 100 online education programs with a ranking of
85 from U.S.News & World Report.

“I attribute part of that success to Dr. (Harold) Crawford who I worked with as part of my fellowship in the Brenton Center for Agricultural Instruction and Technology Transfer in the college. That gave me my background and understanding of where education is going,” Alston says.

He also created an online “2+2” program, which allows individuals with associate degrees in agricultural disciplines to transfer and complete a bachelor’s in agricultural education from A&T. The first online teacher education candidates in such a program graduated in 2006. As a result, their enrollment has dramatically increased and transfer students experience a smoother path to graduation.

In mentoring undergraduate and graduate students Alston hopes to inspire them to pass along their passion for agriculture and the environment. His impact on students has been recognized with numerous awards in recent years including Fellow of North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture; Outstanding Contribution to Agricultural Education from the National Association of Agricultural Educators and National FFA; USDA Food and Agriculture Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award (Southern Region); and the University of North Carolina Board of Governor’s Teaching Excellence Award.

His research interests are focused on instructional technology, distance learning and inclusiveness within agricultural education learning environments, particularly as it relates to minority populations.

Speaking out for inclusiveness

With such enthusiasm and expertise
on the role minority populations play in agricultural education and the agricultural industry it is understandable that Alston is a popular speaker on the subject. His message is simple.

“Have an open mindset. Be inclusive and demonstrate a sense of tolerance of other ideas and backgrounds. Be willing to be a mentor. Find opportunities to create an all-inclusive environment in your profession. We live in a global society and if your organization doesn’t mirror that, it isn’t serving the population and it isn’t going to survive.”