No Such Thing as Accidents: Rebecca Lawver's Inaugural Professor Lecture
By Madison Leak |
In the cornfields of Elkhorn, Nebraska, grew a girl who would challenge many of the social norms she would find in her way. Though she didn’t know it as she grew up playing in those fields of corn, one day she would be teaching the children of those farmers about how to be effective leaders, teammates and business leaders.
But before she could become that teacher who accomplished so many things, Rebecca Lawver first had to decide what she wanted to be when she grew up. It took a few tries and a few “accidents” to land her in agricultural education, but she always suspected she’d become a teacher. Lawver recounted the accidents that led her to Utah State University during the Inaugural Lecture celebrating her promotion to professor.
“In my family, you were either going to be a teacher or a nurse,” Lawver laughed. “My brother worked for the electrical company, my sister was a nurse, so that left teaching to me.”
Though she didn’t directly grow up on a farm, her grandfather had a small farm and she was always interested in agriculture. When she started classes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it took one visit to the East Campus, or agricultural campus, for her to change her major to animal science, the first accident that led her on a different path than the one she had anticipated.
While in the animal science major, she met an FFA state officer who showed her the ins and outs of FFA. The organization originally founded as Future Farmers of America has since opted to just use the name FFA as a nod to its origins but has grown to encompass opportunities for students who aspire to become scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs, engineers, business leaders and teachers, and has more than 735,000 members in all 50 states.
That’s when Lawver realized she could teach all the things she loved learning about in animal science and more, and she switched her major to agricultural education.
This is where she first encountered the stereotypes that come with working in the agricultural industry, this time in the form of an education adviser:
“You’re a girl who didn’t grow up on a farm and didn’t do FFA, so you can’t be an ag teacher.”
With this news, Lawver took a break from school. She got a job working in human resources, was living at home, and just going through the motions until she got bored and decided to go back to school. She started classes at UNL again and hung around with the farm kids, where she met a cowboy who would later become her husband. She continued working at her degree on agricultural education.
Lawver took a student teaching position in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, alongside two seasoned ag teachers. This job took her to her first national FFA convention, a hotel room that she lived in for $150 a week, and taught her how to be tough and be kind.
In 1996, Lawver graduated from UNL with a degree in agricultural leadership, education and communication. Upon graduation, she took a job in human resources for a building company and was settling into graduated life when she received a call from that same adviser who told her she couldn’t teach ag. There was a teacher shortage and they needed Lawver to teach.
She packed up and headed to Bassett, Nebraska. There she taught welding and visited students on their families’ ranches 60 miles from the school. At that point, she was only the sixth female agriculture teacher in the state and the first who didn’t have any agriculture background.
Lawver soon found herself working on her master’s degree in leadership education online while she taught in North Bend, where she would spend nine years. After finishing her master’s through UNL, a colleague suggested that she get a Ph.D. With that encouragement, Lawver moved her family — husband Mark, and children Caleb and Grace — to Columbia, Missouri, where she pursued her doctoral degree in teacher education and leadership.
After graduation in 2009, another accident led her to find an open faculty position with USU’s College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences.
“I remember thinking when I came to Logan for the first time for the position interview: ‘There’s something different about this place,’” Lawver said. “And with that, I packed up my family and moved to a state I’d only been to once.”
As Lawver settled into life in the Rocky Mountains, she found comfort in the adage: “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” She enjoyed teaching and added research to her plate in 2012 when a grant she wrote with faculty colleague Michael Pate about agriculture teachers teaching safety measures resulted in changes at institutions across the country, and she had the opportunity to develop the curriculum for teachers to use throughout the U.S.
In 2019, Lawver asked then-Department Head Bruce Miller for a leadership position and was soon named the assistant head of the Department of Applied Systems, Technology and Education. Changes in the department soon led to her becoming interim department head. In 2020 she was named the department head. Looking forward, her goals still center around developing human potential.
“What I mean by human potential is providing innovative programs, preparing leaders, teachers, employees for successful careers, or simply appreciating the interconnectedness of people,” Lawver said. “Whether it's teaching my graduate courses, working with undergraduates, or working with and mentoring faculty and staff — it's all about helping people develop.”
Lawver’s most rewarding moments from her time at USU have come from working with students.
“Anytime students are successful, whether it's a lightbulb moment in class or the dream job they get or the chance for them to get an amazing experience, it's helping students achieve success in whatever way they aspire to.”
“I used to think I came into agricultural education by accident, but it wasn’t an accident,” Lawver reflected. “Between both sets of my grandparents — one a farmer and one a teacher — I was destined to teach and destined to be passionate about agriculture. It definitely wasn’t an accident.”
College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences
Professor and Department Head
Applied Sciences, Technology and Education
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