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Senior agricultural economics and poultry science double major Mike Norton was recently named a 2012 Truman Scholar. Most of the department was on hand to congratulate Norton and share some cake when the news was revealed, but the road to success started in the classroom nearly two years ago. Norton has been to Ghana and back with the World Cocoa Foundation and spent the summer analyzing the impact of microfinance loans for farmers on cocoa production.

View the Short Takes video on Mike.

1) Tell me a little bit about your research. How did the project come about?

My sophomore year, the CEO of Hormel Foods came and spoke to our department about his time with Opportunity International, which does microfinance loans all over the globe. That lecture sparked my own desire to do something international the following summer. I knew I wanted to do something different, so I talked with Dr. Lanier Nalleywho would eventually become my advisor, because I knew he had spent a lot of time abroad as a graduate student. He had a connection to the World Cocoa Foundation and had received a grant from them for his own work analyzing the life cycle of cocoa. Moving forward from that conversation, Dr. Nalley and I worked with the foundation’s board of directors and president to create a brand new internship. WCF’s Cocoa Livelihoods Program had only been in Ghana for a couple of years at that point and had never hired an intern.

2) What sort of work were you involved in while abroad?

I worked with two others that summer gathering data for an impact study of the World Cocoa Foundation’s programs in Ghana. There are three training programs: farmer field school, farmer business school, and input training. The field school teaches normal production skills, while the business school tries to get farmers to realize that cocoa farming isn’t just a livelihood, but a business that needs to be managed well. The input program teaches them how to properly administer insecticides and fertilizers, which opens the doors for micro finance loans.We worked with about 200 farmers all across southern Ghana and now we’re taking that data and running some deep econometric projections that even I don’t fully understand, but I’m learning. The point is to basically take the impact of that training and understand the gain. We’re trying to show that the program is worth the money, that each dollar invested is yielding much more than the dollar itself.

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Mike poses with a group with students from a farmer business school he observed in Asekeyerewa, Ghana.

3) How does this project tie into what you’re doing now? Has it changed your professional goals?

Well, I would say tied to poultry science, there’s really no connection, but the international theme is key. When I went to Ghana, I spent about two and a half months in the field and the difficulty of that really gave me perspective. I had considered joining the Peace Corps but I now know I that if I want to work for an NGO or in any global development position I would be fine working abroad for a brief advising stint, but not long term. Without that internship I wouldn’t have known and it really helped me recalibrate what I was doing. I got a clear idea of what research looks like in the real world and how we can then take that and funnel it back into education. It’s a continuous cycle between industry and research and I got to see it from both perspectives.

4) When did you first hear about the Truman Scholarship program?

I am an avid reader of Newswire, and remember reading the bio of another Truman finalist, Andrew Walchuk.I ended up meeting him later on and knew from there what a finalist for the program looked like and felt like it was something for me. I talked with Dr. Suzanne McCray about some of these funding opportunities sophomore year and began working on the application with a handful of other students. The process is tough, yes, but it really helps you understand what you want out of your education. It pushes you to figure out the details of your life. I knew from my agricultural economics background that I wanted to work internationally, but I also knew that someday I wanted to run for political office in Arkansas. My application takes a serious look at the food system, and consumers, too. The proposal is a response to the obesity epidemic that focuses on gardens in schools designed to supply cafeterias, but also to teach kids a bit about where their food comes from.

5) Where will this funding take you? What are your future plans?

I’m looking at several graduate programs. The Truman Foundation highly recommends that scholars don’t actually go straight into graduate school, which I think is actually a smart plan. I’d like to work in D.C. for a year or two, while taking a couple of math classes to prepare for the graduate program. Right now I’m applying for the Rhodes scholarship, working with Dr. McCray. If I were to get that I would go to Oxford next fall. There, I’d like to work on two masters: economics for development and another in global health science. I’m looking at similar doctoral economics programs at Stanford and Harvard Kennedy School of Government. As my advisor says on a regular basis, a Ph.D. in economics is a Ph.D. in math… I’m going to have to take a lot more math before I’ll be ready to handle that, but I’m ready for the challenge.

Last year, the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards helped UA students successfully compete for $2.4 million in scholarships. For more info on the Truman Scholarship and other national awards, visit the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards web site.