Exploring the world: Sabella leads CALS’ opportunity-filled international programs

Dr. John Sabella already had a long history of work in international agriculture when he was appointed last spring to serve as interim assistant dean for international programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Less than a year into the job, he is turning paper agreements with international institutions into boots-on-the-ground working projects involving N.C. State University students and faculty members.

Sabella,  who is a CALS alumnus in agricultural and extension education, brings to the job more than 25 years of international work. This includes service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, as a professor of sustainable agriculture at the Universidad Nacional de Agricultura (UNA) in Catacamas, Honduras, and as international programs director at the Rodale Institute.

He is also co-founder of BIO-Uruguay, a sustainable agriculture research and extension center in northern Uruguay. In 2007, a group of CALS students, faculty and Extension agents visited BIO-Uruguay as part of a sustainable agriculture tour in the country.

As associate director of the North Carolina Southern Coastal Agromedicine Institute at East Carolina University, 2002-2006, Sabella worked closely with colleagues at N.C. State and N.C. A&T State universities. He was teaching at UNA in 2011 when N.C. State’s Shelton Leadership Center asked if he would talk with a group of students preparing for a service trip to Honduras.

Sabella spoke with the group several times and was invited to travel with the students in June 2011. Six months later, as Dr. Paul Mueller prepared to retire as assistant dean of CALS International Programs, Sabella was asked to take on the leadership role.

“My job is to make the office useful, important and a clearinghouse for the College’s international efforts,” Sabella said. He also wants to integrate CALS’ international efforts more closely with the larger university’s international programs.

Now is a good time to move forward, Sabella says, with a new dean – Dr. Richard Linton – in CALS, food security issues becoming more important and the university leading through the Global Health Initiative and Global Training Initiative.

“You don’t have to make a case for international programs and globalization at the university now,” he said. “Our faculty and students are asking, ‘Where are the opportunities?’”

One answer to that question, Sabella says, is developing action plans around formal memoranda of understanding (MOU) that N.C. State has signed over the years with universities from around the world.

In 2010, CALS and N.C. State signed an agreement with the University of Zagreb, Faculty of Agriculture in Zagreb, Croatia (FAZ), similar to a “college” at N.C. State. There have been several student and faculty exchanges with FAZ, and the program got a boost when two doctoral students visited this summer to explore additional opportunities for involvement. In October, Aaron Fox and Suzanne O’Connell presented a seminar to showcase what they had learned about Croatia and how students and faculty could engage in some of the newly developed educational programs being taught in English and other research programs there. They proposed a three-week agriculture-focused study abroad tour that would begin at the University of Zagreb and include research centers, farms, historic and cultural sites from the country’s diverse geographic regions.

Fulbright Global Food Security Seminar
In October, student participants in the Fulbright Global Food Security Seminar toured the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory education units.

CALS was also a major player in October when N.C. State hosted the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Global Food Security Seminar. More than 55 Fulbright students from around the world participated in the five-day seminar at N.C. State. The seminar, organized by the university’s Global Training Initiative, included guest speakers, tours of research facilities and even a visit to the State Fair.

During the week, the students toured research facilities at N.C. State’s Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory education units, including the new dairy, the feed mill and swine production unit. Sabella said the students were impressed with what they saw at N.C. State.

As leader of CALS International Programs, a significant amount of Sabella’s time is devoted to a partnership with a Wake County church to improve agricultural production in Honduras. In the last year, St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church came to the College to ask for assistance with a long-running project.

“The church members realized they wanted to do something in agriculture,” Sabella said. “We have the support of the church, which has been working in this community for years. And this project is changing our own students’ lives.”

N.C. State is now involved in two projects in the area of Patuca, Olancho, Honduras, with support from UNA, where Sabella taught. One effort involves direct extension work with growers, who are mainly women. Another project involves a farm at a local agricultural high school, which is used as a demonstration center for field days and other activities.

“Our own project there – a sustainable agriculture project – is making a contribution in a remote part of the country,” Sabella said.

For N.C. State, the Honduras projects offer the opportunity to share experience in sustainable agriculture, helping establish sustainable grazing practices that protect fragile slopes and waterways, introducing more goats and fewer cattle, as well as valuable trees and cash crops like coffee.

In August, a group of students visited Honduras on a work trip, and another group will participate in an alternative spring break trip there in March through the university’s Center for Student Leadership, Ethics and Public Service.

In addition to involving campus faculty, Sabella would like to see Cooperative Extension agents also get involved in international work of CALS. “Extension has a lot of offer internationally,” he said. “Countries like Honduras don’t have an extension service.”

Recent agreements signed by the university offer continuing opportunities, include MOUs with the University of Adelaide in south Australia and with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. And Sabella is also interested in reaching out to Sierra Leone, where he was a Peace Corps volunteer. Students and faculty will have many new opportunities to explore the world, sharing their knowledge and learning from others.

— Natalie Hampton

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