story by Pamela Hill, special to The City Wire
FAYETTEVILLE — He might look like a typical college student in a coffee shop: backpack, water bottle, T-shirt and shorts. But this just might be a kid who will change the world. First though, he has to tackle an enviable summer travel schedule in Europe and Africa. And he might drop a joke or two along the way.
Mike Norton, a 20-year-old junior, recently became the first student from the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas to win a Harry S. Truman scholarship. The $30,000 award was one of only 54 scholarships given to students nationwide by the Truman Foundation for 2012.
His academic research in food supply and sustainability issues has already taken him to Ghana to study cocoa production. Here at home, he’s helped grow the university food bank by securing funding for cold-storage units.
He’s also the incoming senate chair for the Associated Student Government, the 3rd Congressional District coordinator for the Arkansas Federation of College Republicans, a literacy mentor for the Volunteer Action Committee, a columnist and photographer for UA’s student newspaper, The Arkansas Traveler, and a marathon runner. Anything this kid doesn’t do?
“He’s an overachiever,” said Dr. Lanier Nalley, one of Norton’s professors and his mentor. “He’s got his hand in almost every bucket on campus.”
“He is someone Arkansans can be truly proud of. He’s truly a gentleman,” said Dr. Michael Vayda, dean of the Bumpers College. “He’s a well-accomplished person, respectful, just a wonderful human being.”
It’s easy to get that impression. When his work for the food bank is mentioned, he’s quick to note the work of the volunteers and director and to tout their accolades. Mention his Truman award and he automatically mentions the two other UA students — Grant Hodges from Ozark., Mo., and Matthew Seubert from Bentonville — who were finalists.
As someone who grew up on a broiler farm near Lincoln in Washington County and was elected state president of the Arkansas Future Farmers of America in high school, it is not a surprise he chose poultry science as his major — or even that the 2009 Lincoln High valedictorian decided to become a double major by adding agricultural business to his studies. But it’s what he wants to do with those degrees that varies from the expected.
A life in public policy is a far cry from his original expectation to work 40 years for Tyson Foods and retire.
Norton was in ninth grade when, after doing well on a test, his teacher told him he should use his intelligence to help others. The teacher mentioned studying with others in class, but Norton knew the teacher intended a broader application of the suggestion.
“It was one of the first times that I realized I could use my education for more than to just get a good job,” Norton said. “He made me think I could make a larger impact elsewhere (outside of the classroom).”
So Norton plans to use his degrees and future work toward his doctorate to bring about change in public policy and implement programs make food production more efficient and sustainable, bring healthier foods and healthier habits to consumers, and work to curb diabetes and obesity.
Norton wants to run for office someday, hoping his background in food production and sustainability, food-insecurity issues and economics will be useful as a public servant. He has already taken on that public servant role and serves in student government. And it was through that avenue that he helped the UA Full Circle Campus Food Pantry.
“I thought how cool it would be if the poultry or ag science (departments) could donate food to the pantry,” Norton said.
He met with the pantry director but was told the pantry couldn’t accept fresh or cold donations because they didn’t have refrigerated storage units. He went to the student senate and obtained money to purchase an industrial-size cold-storage unit.
“Now they can store milk, orange juice, eggs. Hopefully, this summer they’ll get food from the gardens,” Norton said.
As soon as he finished his last final of the spring semester Thursday (May 10), Norton began looking forward to his very busy summer agenda.
Later this month, he and other Truman scholars have a leadership development program, then on May 27 they will receive their awards in a ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo.
He is then off to London, where he’ll travel Europe for more than two weeks. He’ll then return to Ghana for two and a half weeks for continued research in the Cocoa Livelihoods Program. Finally, it’s back to London for six weeks at the London School of Economics before returning to Fayetteville for his senior year.
Norton looks forward to returning to Ghana. He spent two months last summer there doing research and collecting data for the World Cocoa Foundation.
The Cocoa Livelihoods Program, administered by the World Cocoa Foundation, is a $40 million program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and 14 chocolate industry companies to improve the livelihoods of 200,000 cocoa farmers in Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria in Africa.
Begun in 2009, the five-year program focuses on enhancing farmer knowledge, productivity, crop diversification and improving supply-chain efficiency. To date, 47,861 farmers have been trained on good farming practices, input supply application (the use of fertilizers and pesticides), and business skills. Almost 2,000 of the farmers took part in a financing project that gave credit to the farmers to buy supplies.
Norton was the first intern of the program, and he and the rest of the research team collected information from 200 cocoa farmers.
“He had a great opportunity (in Ghana),” said Nalley. “For an American from Lincoln, Ark., this is really the other side of the world. They were ecstatic with his work and how well he assimilated with people from all nations.”
Norton said it’s naïve to think Americans always know best.
“The locals know best what to do in their regions. There was only so much that I knew,” Norton said.
“Realizing you might be the smartest kid in your class at the UA but that you might not be as smart as someone in a field in Ghana without even a high school education – he took that away (from this experience),” said Nalley, who thinks Norton learned more perseverance and became more well-rounded from seeing first-hand how things are in another part of the world.
The collected data looks at yields before and after the farm school program. The information can be used to make better public policy, help investors decide if it’s a worthwhile program for their dollars, and whether to expand the program.
Vayda said Norton has not only been a good student, but a good representative for the university.
“He’s the perfect example of the kind of student we love to bring in. He took advantage of all we have to offer,” Vayda said. Norton has gotten a sound foundation in his major that, been involved in university activities and taken advantage of hands-on learning opportunities.
“I am proud of the hands-on opportunities we offer for our students with internships and international experiences,” Vayda said. He added that Norton’s experiences in Ghana will be especially valuable for him because food production is a global marketplace.
Norton said his motivation in applying for the Truman scholarship was to enable him to secure a strong economics background and be able to go into public service.
Suzanne McCray, director of the UA’s Office of Nationally Competitive Awards, said just the application process can be daunting. The application takes 50 to 60 hours to complete, she said, followed by a rigorous interview process for the top 100 candidates.
“It’s not a scholarship for the faint of heart,” McCray said.
Norton said he was surprised when his professors and administrators brought a cake to class to tell him he’d been selected.
“I was pretty embarrassed. My face turned red. The other kids in that class, they probably just knew me as that guy that’s late to class every day,” Norton said.
The 54 Truman scholars are from 48 U.S. universities. From 587 candidates nominated by 292 colleges and universities, the winners were chosen by 16 independent selection panels on the basis of their academic and leadership accomplishments and their likelihood of becoming public service leaders.
Norton plans to graduate in spring 2013. He hasn’t decided if he will go straight to graduate school — he wants to get a master’s in public policy and a doctorate in economics from Stanford University — or if he will try to work a year in Washington, D.C., perhaps in a congressional office or for the USDA.
“It’s a quality mark for Mike, but we’re also proud our programs were able to produce a Truman scholar,” Vayda said.
Norton said he’s received a good education at all levels in northwest Arkansas.
He credits his family for his success, too. His parents, Sonja Barton and Kevin Norton, allowed their children to make many of their own decisions about school work and other activities, with the knowledge that there were set expectations.
“It gave us a real self-discipline,” he said.
And while Norton has accomplished much as a student and demonstrated his aptitude for public service, the world may also someday see a different public face from this fun-loving farm kid.
“I have this tiny dream of wanting to do stand-up comedy,” Norton said, smiling.