May 19, 2014

Growing leadership skills at home and abroad

Growing Leaders - Serina, Liberian woman
Photo provided
Serina Tiahton Malia and daughter, Grace, befriended the author during a teaching workshop in Liberia.

By Danica Kirkpatrick

After completing AgrIInstitute’s two-year Indiana Agricultural Leadership Program, which culminated with two weeks of traveling abroad this spring, I returned to my comfortable home, my temperature-controlled office with a steady stream of electricity and Internet access, a home with a refrigerator full of food and a closet full of clothes, and a steady income with full benefits.

I’m thankful for all of these luxuries in a way I never was before I returned from a trip to some of the capitals of Europe and the west African country of Liberia. Yes, Liberia.

The thing I’m most thankful for from my experience was meeting Serina. This Liberian woman taught me more about leadership than I could have ever imagined.

Serina is a schoolteacher at the Liberian Christian Institute in Ganta, a city of about 40,000 people located 164 miles and an eight-hour bus ride from the capital city of Monrovia. She is around 28 years old and is the mother of two children. I met one of her children, Grace, who is 8 months old. Grace accompanies her mother to school each day. The first time I met her, she was asleep on a tiny, raised wooden platform in her mother’s classroom.

As a teacher, Serina makes about $60 to $80 per month (U.S. equivalent). But that varies. She is only paid when parents can afford to pay their childrens’ tuition, which doesn’t happen very often because Liberia, by almost any measurable standard, is one of the poorest countries on earth.

Our leadership class of 30 toured a Dutch dairy, saw the world’s largest cut-flower auction floor in Amsterdam and visited the Rabobank headquarters in Utrecht, Netherlands, one of world’s largest agricultural lending agencies. We spent two days in Paris.

All of these farms and institutions were close in scale and technology to what we were accustomed to seeing in the United States. The amount of choice and affluence in food production and economies as a whole were very similar to what we Americans see every day. It was our opportunity to see an approach to agriculture that differs, albeit slightly, from the way we know here and understanding that our way isn’t necessarily the only way to achieve financial success.

From the City of Lights into a country of darkness

Danica Kirkpatrick
Photo provided
Danica Kirkpatrick, shown here at the Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium, recently completed a two-year program designed to hone her leadership skills.

We left Paris, the City of Lights, on a nine-hour flight to Monrovia, Liberia, a city with virtually no lights or electricity. The contrast between Europe and Africa was shocking to each of us. It was planned that way.

“We thought this would be a great opportunity to see one of the two or three poorest countries in the world and to understand what it takes to develop agriculture in a country where there are so many developmental needs — economically, socially, politically,” explained Beth Archer, executive director of AgrIInstitute, based in Danville, Indiana. “We wanted to show the extremes from the European nations we visited to a place where they are just thankful to have food of any kind.”

The group found that Liberia’s recovery from a civil war that ended in 2003 has been slow and painful. Many buildings remain bombed-out shells of what they had been prior to war. Their walls still bear the bullet holes inflicted by years of conflict.

The purpose of AgrIInstitute’s leadership program is to create a cadre of self-assured, highly motivated professionals who possess the leadership capacity to serve Indiana agriculture and rural communities in public affairs at the local, state, national and international levels.

Being a part of the program had interested me for years. Its list of graduates is a who’s who of Indiana agricultural leaders. These are people I enjoy working with and whose opinions I respect. I had also been in my current position in the College of Agriculture for eight years and wanted to expand my knowledge of the industry by doing and not just by watching from the sidelines.

Gaining acceptance into the leadership program

I wasn’t sure I was qualified for the program. My final push to apply came from Dean Jay Akridge, who pulled me aside one day and asked if I was interested. He told me he believed I would be able to grow professionally and personally in the program. He told me he believed in me. That was all I needed.

I knew I wanted to grow in my knowledge of the agriculture industry. The prospect of serving agriculture motivated me to apply. Once I was accepted, I couldn’t wait to start.

I spent a good portion of 2012 getting to know my 29 classmates, who included, among others, farmers, attorneys, bankers, Purdue Extension educators, business owners and two faculty members of the College of Agriculture.

We met every six to eight weeks for three-day meetings, traveling the state to study and discuss topics such as communication, advocacy, university structure and services, and state-level governance.

We wrapped up year one with a weeklong visit to Washington, D.C., where we met with legislators and engaged with different agencies, both pro- and anti-agriculture.

The second year of the program focused on areas such as infrastructure, public discourse, community building, economic development, social pressures and preparation for our international experience.

Liberia hospital
Photo provided
Participants in the Indiana Agricultural Leadership Program pose for a photo with some of the students at the Liberian Christian Institute. That's Kirkpatrick, middle right, second row.

But all of the training could not prepare me for Serina or our visit to the Ganta United Methodist Hospital.

This modest, open-air campus provides health care to a half million people from Liberia and the adjoining nations of Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. The adult, pediatric and obstetric wards were dark and crowded but silent. In a country where anesthesia is hard to come by, I expected to hear crying, moaning or pleading for help. But there was nothing. They suffered in silence.

Coming Tuesday:

The next Agricultural Leadership Program class assembles in July and will include Purdue's Jennifer Stewart, BS '06. Stewart recently wrote about her trip to Honduras to build a well. Read about her expectations for herself and the program in ConnectionsNOW!

So did Serina, until she sought me out following a teacher workshop that a few classmates and I conducted at her school. Serina was attentive and contributed to the discussions, all while keeping an eye on little Grace. Sometimes Grace would eat while we talked or play on her mother’s lap, and when she was tired, she slept on a thin blanket on the tile floor.

How to help Serina

As a mother myself, I related to Serina. I juggle raising children of my own while having a career that brings me joy and provides our family with income. But I have the luxury of having reliable child care, which I used after I spent three months home with each child during maternity leave.

Serina never got a maternity leave. When I returned to work, I had options regarding how I fed my children. Serina doesn’t have the option to feed her baby formula or to plug in a fancy breast pump so she can give Grace breast milk. Serina’s choices are limited. Since she must work to feed her family, Grace must come to work, too.

The day after our workshop, Serina found me during a break, trying to keep cool on the shaded porch on the side of the school. She approached me with a letter containing her telephone number. She had 10 Liberian dollars (about 12 cents in U.S. currency) and told me, with tears in her eyes, that she had no money. “Sis Danica, can you help me?”

The leadership journey I was on suddenly took a very personal and very emotional turn. How could I help Serina and Grace? Should I give her money, even though it was discouraged by the organization we were working with? Should I promise her I would pray for her? Should I offer her words of encouragement? Could that be enough? What would be the best way for me to help someone who desperately needed all the help they could get? All of those choices somehow felt inadequate when I saw the tears in Serina’s eyes.

But what about Serina’s choices?

Because of where she was born, Serina’s only choice is to work hard and support her family or die. Sadly, it’s that simple.

Born in the U.S.A.

Because I was born in a country where anything is possible to parents who made sure I never wanted for anything, I’m afforded the luxury of having choices. I get to decide what to do with my Saturday afternoons, what to cook or where to dine out for dinner, if I want to buy one or two new pairs of shoes for my children. If I have a tough time with something, I have a choice to lean on my husband, my family and my friends.

I also have the choice to take what I’ve learned from this ag leadership journey and do nothing with it or let life-altering experiences like meeting Serina drive me do something that will change the lives of those around me and maybe even across the globe.

I can choose to use the network of other Indiana agricultural leaders I’ve cultivated to better my community, my state and my country. I can choose to use the tools I’ve been given to resolve conflict, serve as a mentor and engage with my elected officials. I can choose to make a difference by getting involved as an active board member in organizations I believe in.

In a place half a world away from Purdue University, I chose to tell Serina she was a good mother, a good teacher and a hard worker. I knew those words were not what she wanted. But giving her money would have only been a very short-term solution to her lifelong financial problems.

I told her the people at Liberia International Christian College could help her and her family. And I chose to never forget Serina and Grace. I still have Serina’s address and phone number on the letter she slipped to me on that hot afternoon in Ganta.

As I move forward from the leadership program to join the other 407 agricultural leaders who have graduated from the program over the past 30 years, Serina and Grace are my motivation to lead a life of serving others.

Kirkpatrick is the engagement program manager for the Purdue College of Agriculture. She is the mother of Cole, 11, Kacey, 8, and Carson, 4, and is married to her college sweetheart, Josh, BS ’01, who farms in west-central Indiana.  Contact her at


ConnectionsNOW! provides the latest news for students, alumni, faculty, staff and friends of Purdue Agriculture. Find out more -->