Elaine Atwood believes in the value of hard work, healthy food and the education she has received through the Sustainable Agriculture Program at Mesa Community College.
Atwood graduates this spring with two Associate in Applied Science degrees, one in Urban Horticulture and the other in Sustainable Agriculture. In fact, she’s one of the first graduates of the Sustainable Agriculture Program.
Students in the Sustainable Agriculture Program learn hands-on how to grow crops and raise animals as well as run a small business by working on the urban farm located on MCC’s Southern and Dobson campus. The students learn organic and natural production methods to achieve the goals of weed, pest, disease and erosion control as well as high soil quality.
For Atwood, the hands-on part was what attracted her to the program.
“I did the research for many community colleges to compare what type of education I was to expect and found MCC to be one of the best rated community colleges in the United States,” Atwood said. “This is where people of all ages and learning needs can excel. Bookwork combined with hands-on is a recipe for success.”
Atwood, a 59-year old Navy veteran, decided to enroll at MCC after discovering a new opportunity to complete education credits through the Veterans Administration. She had always wanted to attend college, but spent her early adulthood serving in the Navy and raising her three children. When she heard about the VA opportunity, she jumped at the chance and enrolled in the Urban Horticulture program.
“The first day I walked into the Veteran Services office at MCC, I felt I had made the right choice,” Atwood said. “They were so helpful in putting a program together for me and answered any possible questions I had. This was new to me, and I was not a fresh-hatched chicken right out of high school. I was terrified but they led me through every step, starting with online courses which helped me get used to the idea of going to college.”
Soon she had only a chemistry class left to complete her degree in Urban Horticulture. Then, MCC Professor Peter Conden introduced her to the new Sustainable Agriculture Program. She got very excited about the curriculum and decided to get both degrees.
Atwood found her time in the program to be an enriching experience.
“I have grown with many of the changes Professor Conden has made and am amazed at the program being delivered to students,” Atwood said. “He really cares! Anyone who attends this program needs to count their blessings.”
During her time at MCC, she became a member of the Urban Farmer’s Club, which gave her insight into how a farmer’s market is run and the potential profits that she could expect in a business of her own.
Financially, Atwood received assistance from several sources. In addition to her veteran’s benefits, as a high-performing Honors student she was awarded scholarship money during five semesters.
Atwood said the Arizona Nursery Association and the Lion’s Club were also very generous with scholarships to help her complete her education.
After graduation, Atwood and her husband of nearly 30 years plan to start a Christmas tree and blueberry farm in Prescott, plans that include her five grandchildren. First, though, she is determined to complete a bachelor’s degree and is looking into the most efficient way to do that. She admits this all might be a bit ambitious, but Atwood said she gains energy and inspiration from the young students she has met at MCC.
“Most of my friends are less than half my age,” she said. “I love the youth of today! Knowing they have a fresh and exciting future to look forward to brings an energy to a room, or a field full of soil. I would have any of them work for or with me.”
Atwood said there are many things going on in her life right now and maybe some would find it easier to just quit.
“But what a loss that would be,” Atwood said. “MCC has helped me keep my balance. They have worked with me and understand that things happen. Getting educated is not easy but the best things in life never are. Education is a door to experience a life you never thought possible, especially for high-school graduates. It does not matter where in life you are or the challenges that are in front of you. Education helps you learn how to handle it in a more graceful manner. I cannot stress enough how important it is.”