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Hispanic Heritage Month Profile: Ashlee Linares-Gaffer

Nifa Author
Rachel Dotson, Public Affairs Specialist (Social Media)

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is highlighting Ashlee Linares-Gaffer who serves as an associate professor of practice at the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Tell us your journey and how your interest in agriculture developed.

My path into agriculture was unexpected. I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. Growing up, I had very little exposure to agriculture, but my grandmother would often tell me stories of our family’s agricultural roots in Panama — sugar cane, dairy cows and various specialty crops. During my childhood, I also often visited cousins on my mom’s side of my family in Missouri, where I had my first personal experiences seeing and visiting farms. I didn’t think about farms a whole lot outside of these experiences.

When I started attending college as a first-generation college student, I didn’t have a strong sense of what I wanted to do for a career until I found nutrition, where I really fell in love with the idea of getting to study and spend my career exploring the power of food. After I became a registered dietitian nutritionist, I found that most of the people I met wanted to ask me questions about where food came from, and I did not feel equipped to engage them in thoughtful conversation. In school, dietitians learn a lot about nutrients, digestion, metabolism, specialized medical nutrition therapies, food science and safety, management, and many other topics; however, it is uncommon for dietitians to receive much education, if any, about agriculture or the food system at large.

As a faculty member at the University of Arizona working in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, I found myself in a position to influence education for future dietitians. I knew we had to do more to expose them to agriculture and the food system so that they could engage meaningfully with people about food on the topics that are so interesting to many patients, clients and community members. This was the start of my professional interest in agriculture.

Describe your involvement with NIFA and your role. 

I am a career-track faculty member, which means my primary job is to teach and develop curriculum in the form of courses and programs, academic and extracurricular. Specifically, I am an associate professor of practice and director of Student Success, Retention and Equity in the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona. I do not have a research appointment, but I am encouraged by my institution to engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning, which can include writing grants, presentations, publications and other scholarly work about my teaching activities.

I am currently a co-program director (PD) on a NIFA-Hispanic Serving Institution Education Grant Program-Regular grant and a Multicultural Scholars Program grant, and I am the PD on a recently awarded NIFA-HSI Education Grant Program-Collaboration grant.

Could you tell us about one of your NIFA-funded projects?

One of my NIFA-funded projects with my colleagues, Dr. Tanya Hodges and Dr. Baleshka Brenes-Mayorga, is called S2OPA2 – Student Success by Increasing Opportunity, Participation, Awareness and Achievement. S2OPA2's objective is to increase the number of students completing the nutritional sciences bachelor’s degree and earning dietetics credentials at the University of Arizona's Yuma campus by developing farm-to-table food as medicine experiential learning activities (addressing regional food safety, food security, food production, incorporation of local cuisine and cooking traditions).

The primary grant activities are centered around building access, opportunity and awareness of experiential learning opportunities for students in the southwest border region of Yuma County, Ariz., through the development of a holistic teaching garden, a new culinary laboratory, development and delivery of new in-person courses, and development of new community partnerships and internships for students. Yuma is a rural agricultural community and our student population there is greater than 70% Latinx.

How has NIFA funding shaped your professional development as a scientist?

Although my training is in nutritional sciences and dietetics, a highly interdisciplinary field, I do not consider myself a scientist, professionally; however, I do identify as an educator, a learner, a scholar and an emerging equity-minded leader. NIFA funding has, and continues to, contribute to my professional development of these identities in many ways.

First, in the process of writing and contributing to grants, NIFA program guidelines challenge me to explore the existing gaps in preparing students for the food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences (FANH) workforce and develop refined and targeted project ideas that can stand on their own, even if the proposal is ultimately not funded. Further, NIFA requires ongoing monitoring and evaluation of projects which challenges me to engage in continuous improvement efforts on the projects.

Applying for NIFA projects has pushed me to engage in many required trainings and activities involved in the grant submission process at my institution. I have met new people and learned many new things along the way that faculty in my nontenured role are less commonly involved in. Finally, I have started developing stronger grant writing skills, I’ve established new partnerships and collaborators and I have gained many mentors in the process.

What advice do you have for current students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path?

First, believe that you can do the things that seem interesting to you. It doesn’t matter if you are the first generation in your family to go to college; whether you have a lot of money or a little; or whether you see people who look like you in the profession that calls to you. You can do it — one project, one semester and one degree  at a time.

Second, ask for and accept help and advice. Talk to advisors, professionals, professors and anyone at all whom you think might be able to give you pointers on how to keep moving towards your career goals. Don’t get discouraged if you talk to someone who isn’t helpful or reassuring; just keep talking to more people. This is how you eventually find mentors and learn about opportunities to help you keep moving forward.

Third, be open to opportunities that let you get your foot in the door at places you want to work, or that get you bits and pieces of experiences that relate to your career goals. Add everything you do to your résumé so that you can keep building. I took a job at the university as an advisor, which is not a traditional path to where I am now, but being open to the experience helped me learn a lot about students and the university and really shaped the kind of faculty member I am today and the types of NIFA projects I pursue, which are all about supporting student success.

Those experiences, paired with my educational journey and my personal interests, got me to where I am now. I say yes to a lot of things and, in return, I keep learning, meeting people and finding new opportunities that align with my career interests.

Top image: Ashlee Linares-Gaffer who serves as an associate professor of practice at the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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