October 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW4

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Involving Undergraduate Students as Extension Program Interns

Undergraduate students represent a potentially valuable pool of talented people who can extend the ability of agents to provide education at a time when resources are limited. A student intern was recruited and employed to visit cattle producers and develop reports about alternative marketing strategies. Each of the producers found at least a few useful ideas from the intern's reports. The project was funded with research dollars from a marketing project being conducted by a cooperating faculty member. This represents a different way of reaching audiences, with learning occurring for clients, student interns, and Extension staff.

Bill Rogers
Extension Agent
Oregon State University
Newport, Oregon
Internet Address: William.rogers@orst.edu

Kristi Mason
Undergraduate Animal Science Major
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet Address: masonkr@ucs.orst.edu

Jim Cornelius
Professor and Extension Economist
Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics
Oregon State University
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet Address: jim.cornelius@orst.edu

Undergraduate students represent a potentially valuable pool of human resources who can extend the ability of agents to provide education at a time when resources are limited. In addition, when undergraduates serve as Extension interns they have the opportunity to become involved in real-world problems and test out career options.

Keys to a Productive Internship

The keys to a productive internship are careful selection of the project to make sure that it is achievable by an intern within a defined period of time and careful selection of the intern to make sure that he or she is a good match for the project.

The project should be well structured, with clear end products identified. For example, during the summer of 2000 the primary arranged for an undergraduate intern to visit and interview eight cattle ranchers in Lincoln County, Oregon. The objective was to learn about their production and marketing programs and develop suggestions for alternative marketing strategies. Her assigned tasks were to develop a general report on beef marketing alternatives that could be distributed to all beef producers in the county and to develop specific reports on alternative marketing strategies appropriate for each of the producers that she visited.

To further structure the project, the primary author wrote letters to the participating beef producers explaining the goals of the project and introduced the intern at a Livestock Association meeting. Then the primary author set up the initial visits and introduced the intern to each of the participating producers who were located in two specific portions of the County. She then made follow-up visits to become better acquainted with each producer's herd and marketing program. A timeline was set up for the reports to be finished so that they would be done before fall classes began.

The intern completed her assigned tasks within the timeframe and produced valuable reports for the local beef producers. The cattle producers indicated that they had varying levels of previous awareness of what the intern shared with them in her reports, but each gained at least a few useful new ideas and all enjoyed meeting and working with Kristi.

Selection of Intern

The idea of using a college student intern originated in an earlier meeting with county livestock growers. Recognizing a common interest in marketing alternatives, it was suggested that a student might work directly with producers on this project as a "hands-on" learning experience.

The intern selected was one of several students who responded to a general internship announcement posted in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University. To make it convenient for the applicants, the primary author conducted the interviews at the Animal Science Department and made his selection based on interest and experience with beef and the initiative shown by the prospective intern.

The intern selected came to the interview with a list of possible marketing alternatives already prepared and also brought samples of her writing. Her background knowledge of livestock production and marketing, combined with the ability to work and complete tasks with minimum supervision was a critical feature in the success of this project.

The intern reported that her internship experience was a good one and that she would recommend it to anyone as long as they had an adequate amount of time available to do the job well. She learned numerous practical aspects of marketing through the experience and found the ranchers to be open with her and rewarding to work with. She described the experience as "very worthwhile and fun."


Employing undergraduate interns is a different way of reaching audiences, with learning occurring both ways. The ranchers learn from the intern, and the intern learns from the ranchers. This match works well because the ranchers enjoy being teachers and sharing their knowledge with an interested student. In some cases they might even be more open with a student than they would with an Extension agent. In return, if the students are good listeners, they are able to pick up expressed needs from the ranchers. Interns may then channel information back to producers to help meet those needs thanks to the student's unique access to on-campus research and teaching faculty.

Interns bring new eyes and perspectives to the ranch and may see some opportunities that a rancher hasn't seen, perhaps because he is too close to his own operation. They also have an opportunity to investigate how to accomplish an idea that a rancher may have considered, but not pursued due to lack of knowledge or time.


Short-term funding for a project of this nature is relatively modest. The internship was funded with research dollars from a marketing project being conducted by a cooperating faculty member. Research grants frequently are written to include student employment that may be suitable for an internship. Other potential sources include special project grants, residual funds from completed projects, or a part of a line item budget.

The total cost of this internship was under $700, providing both hourly time card wages and a modest travel and expense budget for the student intern. Funding at this level might also be available from commodity groups, commissions, or state agencies.

Undergraduate student interns allow Extension agents to do things they might not be able to do otherwise, and an undergraduate intern program provides learning opportunities for students, clients, and agents.