Penn State alumnus furthers agricultural education abroad despite pandemic

Manny Catala, a graduate of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, is teaching abroad this year as part of the International Agricultural Education Fellowship Program.  Credit: Manny CatalaAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After his plans to serve with the Peace Corps were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Manny Catala pivoted quickly to continue his service to students abroad. Catala, a 2019 graduate of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, will teach in Ghana this year as part of the International Agricultural Education Fellowship Program.

Catala, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural and extension education and a minor in international agriculture (INTAG), will be one of nine fellows dividing their time between working as agricultural extension agents, teachers and 4-H club advisers.

The program was founded in partnership with AgriCorps and is housed at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture and Development at Texas A&M University. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, the program trains and supports fellows to become agriculture teachers in Ghana. The communities in which the fellows work are selected as prime placement locations by the program and its in-country partner, 4-H Ghana.

Catala arrived in Ghana at the beginning of August and has spent the last month training in preparation for the school year, learning the Twi language and connecting with local extension agents and farmers. The fellows also have met with their co-teachers, headmasters and other community figures.

“We’re going to be working to engage our communities to improve agricultural development and also leading youth through agricultural education and implementing school gardens,” said Catala. He will teach at one host school and plans to network within the community to see if other schools would be interested in establishing 4-H programs.

Although he has been out of college for only a few years, this is not Catala’s first experience teaching abroad. In September 2019, he traveled to Senegal with the Peace Corps for what was supposed to be a 27-month stint. He and other volunteers were evacuated due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Still, Catala said the six months he spent in Senegal were a good foundation for his work in Ghana.

He had extensive training in extension work and culture and even learned Wolof, the most common language spoken in Senegal. Catala said he also got to know the community he would have been working in through site assessments.

“We had the framework of increasing food security and nutrition in the community,” he explained. “The goals were increasing farmers’ capacity to improve varieties of crops, and we also wanted to increase community capacity to grow food sustainably.”

Noel Habashy, assistant teaching professor in the college’s Ag Sciences Global office, was Catala’s adviser for the INTAG minor and taught him in the course, “INTAG 490: Senior Seminar in International Agriculture.”

“Manny eagerly seeks out opportunities to grow, learn and engage with people around the globe,” Habashy said. “He’s an enthusiastic, committed educator and learner. He wants to share his knowledge of agriculture and learn about the world around him. Despite the cancelation of his opportunity with Peace Corps, Manny was tenacious enough to seek out another way to engage with people around the globe effectively.”

Tobin Redwine is the fellowship program manager and lead learning analyst at Vivayic, which is a learning-solutions company and a subawardee on the USDA grant that funded the project.

“Manny brings incredible knowledge from his academic experience at Penn State and his professional works,” Redwine said. “Though he’s only a month into his fellowship, Manny has already been trusted by the school to lead classes and advise a 4-H chapter, and he is working to organize a regional teacher training. Those efforts will further impact students and teachers in Ghana and help strengthen the capacity of school-based agricultural education in the region.”

Catala said his career goal is either to work in extension or stay in the classroom, and he hopes his time in Ghana will help him figure out which. Either way, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in international agriculture development after the fellowship.

Because of the pandemic, it was unlikely that Catala would have returned to Senegal, but he noted that the fellowship program was a good alternative. “My work in Senegal was centered on youth and engaging them in agriculture,” he said. “In Ghana, I’ll be doing similar things.”

For undergraduates interested in teaching abroad, Catala advises them to take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves.

“Reach out and talk to people, get involved,” he said. “I don’t have regrets, but I wish I’d taken advantage of more opportunities offered by the college. As an undergraduate, you have the most flexibility to travel and experience other cultures.”

Last Updated October 07, 2021