CASNR student balances remote Nebraska education and working on family ranch

Natalie Jones
IANR Media
Shaylee Jones, second from left, is pictured with her siblings during an afternoon pairing out on the Diamond Bar Ranch.
Photo courtesy UNL

As students across Nebraska and beyond are transitioning to a new normal at home, many in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources are balancing their education with chores at home in production agriculture.

Natalie Jones, media specialist for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, interviewed her younger sister, UNL agribusiness major Shaylee Jones, about her experiences balancing her college coursework with her responsibilities on the family ranch. The sisters, as well as two younger brothers still in high school, are all living, working and learning on the family ranch near Stapleton, Neb.

Shaylee Jones, a sophomore in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, is continuing her education and experiential learning in the midst of COVID-19 on her family’s ranch north of Stapleton.

For Jones, each day is a delicate balance between scheduled classes via Zoom, homework, studying and working on the family operation.

“What I miss the most is being around my friends and CASNR kids in my classes,” Jones said. On campus, she appreciated the smaller classes within CASNR that put her at ease, and that her professors know her by name. At UNL, in-person classes were suspended beginning the week of March 16, and remote learning began March 30.

Springtime is especially busy in production agriculture, with farmers preparing to plant and ranchers caring for livestock during calving season, scheduling breeding season and planning for summer grazing.

In the morning Jones may be tagging newborn calves, helping a neighbor with branding, or helping in the ranch office. Her afternoons may be spent pairing out horseback (moving a cow-calf pair out into a new pasture to minimize sickness between calves), feeding cattle or doctoring calves. Any spare time the fifth-generation rancher has is spent completing assignments and catching up on studies.

The transition has been challenging. Many of her classes were hybrid — meaning they were partly online already — which made the transition to 100% remote learning fairly smooth. “My professors have made an effort to communicate schedule and assignment changes clearly and have asked students what works best for us and are adapting it as needed,” Jones said.

Leaving her friends and normal routine behind was more difficult. Before classes were cancelled on Nebraska campuses across the state, Jones was a student worker, like many other UNL students, working as a desk assistant at the university suites on UNL’s City Campus. She is also involved in Alpha Xi Delta, Delta Sigma Pi Business Fraternity, and playing on volleyball and basketball intramural teams.

Once UNL announced classes would be moving online, Jones said her goodbyes to friends, and sorority sisters, and had breakfast with her beloved house mom before moving out of Alpha Xi Delta.

“I was hoping classes wouldn’t be canceled — as much as I love the thought of being home, I am a very routine person,” Jones said.

When Jones came to campus her freshman year, she started as a student in the College of Business and had very few classes on East Campus. Although she was part of a business leaders learning community, she missed the connection to agriculture in her classes. Graduating from high school with a class size of seven, she was hoping for a more personalized experience and found that within the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.

“When I made the transition to CASNR after my freshman year, I knew this is where I needed to be,” Jones said.

Ultimately Jones wants to use her ranching background and affinity for finance to help farmers and ranchers across the state to remove the financial burdens in production agriculture through management.

Jones has assisted in the operation’s finances and learned a great deal from her parents, starting when she was young. She has gained experience in planning a cash flow, preparing payroll and agricultural grants, invoices for pasture rent, paying bills and financing.

“Food production is crucial to the health and wellbeing of the world, but each year producers struggle with the increasing cost of inputs, volatile markets and trade,” Jones said.

Jones hopes to return to the family ranch one day. She feels very strongly about helping farmers and ranchers prepare for generational transition and helping young people come back to the family operation or simply get their start in agriculture.

Jones picked up a leadership and communication minor through the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication Department this past year. Looking ahead, Jones knew that to have a successful career in agribusiness, she needed to build upon her leadership skills, public speaking, critical thinking and advocacy knowledge.

Her unexpected semester of remote learning is helping Jones develop flexibility, resilience and work-life balance, all of which will be important down the road.

However, she continues to miss the face-to-face interaction with her professors and classmates, especially the discussion around complex topics in class.

“Sometimes it’s who you know,” she said. “During college you build so many connections and sometimes that network can be valuable in helping you reach your future career goals.” ❖


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