UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State Plant Science majors Casey Baxter and Mikaela Hermstedt may know all there is to know about the Irish potato famine.
This past spring, they took HORT 499H Walking in the Footsteps of the Irish During the Irish Potato Famine: Examinations of New World Crops in Old World Societies. The honors class included a 10-day trip to Ireland after a semester of lectures on the potato and other essential crops of both the United States and Ireland.
In a unique arrangement, the class was co-taught by a professor of horticulture and plant ecosystem health, a professor of vegetable crops, and the associate dean of undergraduate education in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
Through preliminary and on-site research, the students were exposed to an in-depth look at the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century.
"It was a tragedy that caused a million people to die by starvation and a million more to emigrate from Ireland. A fungus called late blight devastated the potato crop, which so many relied on for sustenance," explained Baxter, a rising junior and native of Troy, Pennsylvania.
"Most Irish people would refer to the famine as the 'Great Hunger,' because it was social oppression, not necessarily lack of food, that caused so many people to starve. Poor tenant farmers could not afford to buy the crops, which they produced — the food and income instead went to the English landowners."
Hermstedt found the topic of the class to be eye-opening. “As we learned about the famine and dug deeper into the reasons, it became clear that many of the deaths could have been prevented," said the rising senior from Lincoln, Delaware. "It was interesting for me to see how facts can be skewed to make the public think something that is not accurate.”
During the trip to Ireland, the class stayed along the coastline, where the effects of the potato famine were deadliest. They toured museums dedicated to the famine, as well as a replica ship, which many famine victims boarded to flee to Canada and the United States. They also spent a couple of days touring cities like Dublin and Galway, as well as tourist attractions like the Cliffs of Moher and the Ring of Kerry.
Finally, they visited potato farms in both Pennsylvania and Ireland, and were encouraged to ask questions about farming practices and the potato markets in each location.
Both students thoroughly enjoyed the class and the trip to Ireland.
“I believe that college is the best time to travel abroad. Students have the opportunity to visit places that may typically be closed to the general tourist,” Hermstedt said.
“I got close to my classmates throughout our time traveling together. We developed a bond that we never would have formed if we had just been sitting in a classroom,” Baxter added.
Both students urged all students in the College of Agricultural Sciences to study abroad.
“Studying abroad allows students to engage in learning on a different level and retain more of the information," Hermstedt said. "There is something about learning out in the field, as opposed to a classroom, that makes a big difference."