From Farming to the Forefront of Education: A College President’s Story

Rend Lake College President Holds a Tree

Rend Lake College President Terry Wilkerson demonstrates a process to agriculture students in a photo from his teaching days. Photos courtesy of Rend Lake College

As a teen growing up on his family’s 1,000-acre farm in southeastern Illinois, Terry Wilkerson had no plans to go college.

“At that point in my life, I didn’t see the value of an education.  I just needed to get to farming and to making a living,” said Wilkerson, recently named the president of Rend Lake College in Ina, Illinois, site of Special Assistant for Community College Sue Liu’s Sept. 19 visit during the Department’s back-to-school bus tour.

However, he never completely closed his mind to the possibilities of higher education. After much hounding by friends and family, Wilkerson registered for some classes at RLC.

“I got curious to see what it would do for me,” he explained. “The college was close to home and the class times were flexible. I could still farm.”

Wilkerson meets with others

Wilkerson, right, speaks with Special Assistant for Community Colleges Sue Liu and RLC Applied Science and Advanced Technology Division Chair Chris Nielsen during a Sept. 19 visit to Rend Lake College as part of the Back-to-School Bus Tour. Photo courtesy of Rend Lake College

For the first time, Wilkerson found himself in a room full of people who were really interested in developing a deeper understanding of agriculture, and he realized that he wanted that too. It was a good fit:  he went on to earn an associates degree in applied science at RLC; followed by a bachelor’s degree in plant and soil science and a master’s degree in agronomy, both from nearby Southern Illinois University.

He continued to farm as he pursued his college education, and successfully used knowledge he gained in school to improve his farming practices. Wilkerson soon realized that he wanted to help other farmers and future farmers to also thrive in the changing agricultural industry. He’d stayed in contact with RLC staff members, and soon landed a faculty position in the agriculture program.

“Teaching is a lot like farming. Every year there’s a new crop, and you help it grow,” said Wilkerson. “I enjoyed bringing practical lessons I learned on the farm to the classroom.”

After teaching for 11 years and then serving 4 years as RLC’s chair of the Applied Science and Technology Division, Wilkerson was selected by the college’s board to serve as its president, beginning this past July. While he’d never dreamed of achieving his current position as a teen, he’s found that the same fundamental lessons learned from a lifetime of farming help him in his role as the top executive of Rend Lake College.

“If it’s time to plant corn, it’s time to plant corn. You can’t be stagnant and do nothing,” said Wilkerson, who still farms. “Education is like that. If you stand still, you fall behind.

Julie Ewart is the Director of Communications and Outreach in ED’s Chicago Regional Office. 

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