J. Peter Clark

In August 2008, during a tour of Honduras by journalists, we spent a day at the Pan-American College of Agriculture, better known as Zamorano, in the town of the same name a little outside the capitol of Tegucigalpa. The tour was sponsored by the Foundation for Investment and Development of Exports (FIDE).

Associate Professor Maria Mercedes Roca is shown in her biotechnology laboratory at Zamorano.

Honduras is a small Central American country a few hours by plane from Miami. The country is trying to develop its food and agricultural exports to the United States and Europe. It has the advantages of low labor costs, good climate, and a stable, democratic government.

During our tour, we visited a brewery, a chocolate factory, a dairy, a producer of aseptic banana puree, several fresh vegetable processors, a shrimp farm and processor, a tilapia farm and processor, (the latter two were described briefly in a column in the October 2008 issue of Food Technology) and the university. We were welcomed at a dinner in the home of one faculty member, who is also an accomplished painter and a most gracious host.

Zamorano was founded shortly after World War II as an all-male agricultural college with a faintly military character, which it retains. Today it is co-ed with about 30% female students in a total of about 1,700. Students come from 20 Latin American countries, and graduates are recruited heavily by multinational companies from about 22 countries. All classes are taught in English by faculty members who have degrees from U.S. academic institutions and prestigious European universities. Many of the faculty members are Zamorano alumni, comfortable with the practices and traditions of the institution. These are many and significant.

There are four majors: Agribusiness Administration, Food Agroindustry, Agricultural Science and Production, and Socioeconomic Development and Environment. The Food Agroindustry department is the largest food science department in Latin America. The faculty in this and the other departments have advanced degrees from Mississippi State, Clemson, Louisiana State, Iowa State, Auburn, Harvard, and Cornell, among others. As a result of their connections, students from some of these institutions and others, such as Purdue and Texas A & M, sometimes spend a few weeks at Zamorano, and students from the Honduran school spend some time in the United States.

Learning by Doing
The heart of a Zamorano education is learning by doing. Every student has a job in one of the many commercial operations used by the school to help support itself but also to provide vital practical experience. Over the course of his or her education, a student will rotate through about 14 modules in the various disciplines and applications, including such things as food analysis, fish farming, poultry husbandry, milking cows, operating a dairy, and making cheese.

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First-year students are known as peons and treated as such, good only for wielding machetes in the fields, but as they progress, their responsibility increases until senior students are essentially running the commercial operations with gentle supervision by faculty. The food science department has commercial operations in dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables, feeds and animal nutrition, seeds and grain, honey, and a bakery. Some of the products are used on campus, but most are sold locally. We observed students harvesting herbs for sale at a Wal-Mart subsidiary and others working in the milk shed, tilapia farm, and chicken sheds.

Jacqueline Foglia Sandoval, Director of External Relations, was our host, and she rousted us at 4:30 a.m. (I had to dislodge Kellogg, the conference center mascot cat, from my bed) to go watch cows being milked by students, who were carefully measuring milk production as a research study on the effect of various grain rations. Each senior student writes a senior research paper and gets to use undergraduates as his or her assistants.

Jackie was one of the first female graduates of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, served as an officer in the Honduran Army, was a diplomat and trade negotiator for Honduras, and now promotes Zamorano, which has a modest endowment and good financial support from constituent governments, such as Panama, which sponsors multiple students. About 30% of the students are on full scholarship, about 30% pay full tuition of approximately $14,000/year, and the rest receive partial support.

An Egalitarian Education
An important element of the Zamorano educational experience is that all of the students, regardless of their class or financial origins, are treated the same way, which is rigorous by any standard. The students all wear a simple uniform of blue shirt and jeans; seniors wear white shirts. All rise at 4:30 a.m., are subjected to cold showers, and then go to work. (I was afraid that the Kellogg Center observed the same shower discipline, but after enough time, hot water appeared.) Breakfast, which we shared around 8 a.m., is hearty and healthy—scrambled eggs, coffee, sour cream, tortillas, cereal, juice, and milk. Students with whom we dined were friendly but in a hurry to get back to work or class because they are penalized for being late. Privileges include being allowed off-campus.

An important element of the Zamorano educational experience is that all of the students, regardless of their class or financial origins, are treated the same way, which is rigorous by any standard. The students all wear a simple uniform of blue shirt and jeans; seniors wear white shirts. All rise at 4:30 a.m., are subjected to cold showers, and then go to work. (I was afraid that the Kellogg Center observed the same shower discipline, but after enough time, hot water appeared.) Breakfast, which we shared around 8 a.m., is hearty and healthy—scrambled eggs, coffee, sour cream, tortillas, cereal, juice, and milk. Students with whom we dined were friendly but in a hurry to get back to work or class because they are penalized for being late. Privileges include being allowed off-campus.

The discipline, hardships, and work ethic are all calculated to promote a sense of egalitarianism, recognizing that students come from a wide range of economic backgrounds. The poorest students are seeing a better way of life while the richer ones are experiencing some taste of what most of the others have known all of their lives. According to the Zamorano philosophy, this produces graduates with mutual respect for one another and an ability to survive in strenuous circumstances. Multinational companies, such as Cargill, Coke, Pepsi, ADM, Bunge, and Dole, gladly hire Zamorano graduates because they are confident that the new employees can be dropped into a remote receiving station or bottling plant and thrive. Other U.S. companies might well consider recruiting at Zamorano for the same reasons.

The university also conducts research, but it does not currently offer graduate degrees. The poultry department does not operate commercially, but it does contract research on feeding studies and employs many students.

The following is a quote from one of the university’s publications: "Since its foundation, Zamorano has been active in understanding, utilizing, and conserving biodiversity. The Institution’s scientific and pragmatic rigor created the foundation of what today is an excellent interdisciplinary team of professionals that combines community strengthening and economic development with a strong environmental component and physical infrastructure that safeguards collections of more than half a million species and varieties of flora and fauna.

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"Zamorano scientists participate in committees, workshops, and exchange programs that include the identification of animal species. They have supported environmental sustainability, reduced environmental impact and promoted conservation in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras with the participation of 20,000 rural families. With the support of USAID, they have supported the rehabilitation of watersheds in Honduras and Nicaragua. And together with the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research (FHIA), CARITAS, and NGO PROLANSATE, they are searching for solutions to counter Lethal Yellowing in coconut palms."

Research and Outreach
Zamorano also has fostered academic participation in the area of water resources and supported the development of a social outreach strategy based on research. Zamorano has developed at least 80 pre-degree research studies on subjects such as the following: characterization of community water sources for consumption; mapping of hydrological recharge zones; evaluation of hydrological flows; physical-chemical characterization of water; quantification of contaminants in fluvial and slough ecosystems; use of bio indicators to measure water quality; and alternatives to home water treatment for consumption.

Zamorano also has fostered academic participation in the area of water resources and supported the development of a social outreach strategy based on research. Zamorano has developed at least 80 pre-degree research studies on subjects such as the following: characterization of community water sources for consumption; mapping of hydrological recharge zones; evaluation of hydrological flows; physical-chemical characterization of water; quantification of contaminants in fluvial and slough ecosystems; use of bio indicators to measure water quality; and alternatives to home water treatment for consumption.

Most of the faculty lives on campus in houses or apartments. All extracurricular activities are initiated and organized by students, including athletic teams, such as soccer, as well as horseback riding. Central features of the campus are a nondenominational chapel and a library.

In my opinion, one of our great failings in the U.S. is our provincialism, our lack of understanding of foreign languages and culture. This is especially true in engineering and sciences, where the strict limitations on credit hours limit our ability to study foreign languages or to experience study abroad. This was certainly true for me, and I think it is even truer today because credit hour requirements have been reduced from those we experienced years ago.

Those institutions that have a relationship with Zamorano are to be commended, and those who do not might seriously consider doing so for the benefit of their students and faculty as well as for the benefit of Latin American students. Zamorano isn’t the only option, of course; U.S. academic administrators might consider doing something with some other institution in the developing world that would give students exposure to another language and culture as well as some practical experience.

by J. Peter Clark,
Contributing Editor, Consultant to the Process Industries, Oak Park, Ill. 
[email protected]t.net