A globetrotting Marshalltownian

Willman graduates from ISU with two majors, gained experience in three countries

“The reason I picked such a wide variety of experiences was I really wanted to see where I felt happy, and where things kind of made sense, and where I could best utilize my skills.”

The cornfields and rolling hills of Central Iowa are a long way from places like Turkey, China and Morocco, and Marshalltown native and recent Iowa State University graduate Adam Willman said his travels brought him great experiences.

Before his whirlwind travels and earning his double major in agronomy and global resource systems, Willman was a curious student at Marshalltown High School who wanted to learn about soil, crops and more.

“My initial attraction to food and to agriculture was through Envirothon, through MHS,” he said. “I wrote a paper for the World Food Prize down in Des Moines; so, I submitted that and went to the Iowa Youth Institute the spring of my junior year of high school, and then went to the Global Youth Institute my senior year of high school.”

That’s when Willman’s first chance to travel overseas came.

“They have an opportunity called the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship, and so I applied for that when I was a senior in high school, and it led me to Turkey, and it led me to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center,” he said.

That first international experience set the stage for Willman’s continued interest in travel, culture and agronomy.

“In Turkey, I was working with a senior scientist from Palestine, and some doctoral students; one was from Ethiopia, one was from China and one was from Syria,” he said. “Basically, the research team was looking at soil-borne pathogens that affect wheat.”

The next summer, Willman remained in the U.S., but still traveled a good distance to get more agronomy experience.

“I was trying to see if I was interested in plant genetics or plant breeding, and I happened to find the experience out in California,” he said. “They were working on drought-stressed corn, so that was really interesting to see how a corporation does that type of research to produce a product; that was more of a traditional agronomy internship, I would say.”

It wasn’t long before Willman was drawn back to the Middle East. He developed an interest in the Arabic language while in Turkey, and decided to pick up the language to fulfill a requirement for his global resource systems major.

“The (U.S.) State Department has what’s called a Critical Language Scholarship, and they have identified languages that are critical to the national security interests of the U.S., and so then they fund students to study those languages in those countries,” Willman said. “When I was in Morocco, it was two months of intensive Arabic language study, and I got to live with a host family; I had about four hours of formal class a day, along with expeditions and different stuff like that.”

While he barely grasped Arabic when he arrived in Morocco, Willman said it eventually became more natural to speak in the language after his immersive experience.

“These were classes that were fully taught in Arabic; even if I had a question, I had to figure out how to ask it in Arabic,” he said. “It got to the point that, at the end of the eight weeks, I was having dreams in Arabic, and it was coming to me more naturally, and I was able to build upon that in my junior year at Iowa State.”

Finally, Willman took a trip to the Far East, and there he got another unique cultural experience.

“That was my international internship with Cargill (Inc.) … and that was to work with their animal protein division in Shanghai,” he said.

While each trip to a different country or state brought new experiences all their own, Willman said he took away some general lessons from his years of travel.

“I really subscribe to the belief that everybody knows something you don’t; everybody has the opportunity to teach someone something else, whether it’s about themselves, whether it’s anecdotal, whether it’s research-based,” he said. “Interacting with people from different cultures, backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, everybody has a story to tell and they’re all equally valid and just important.”

He also said there were educational situations he was put in that he could not have encountered in a college classroom.

“You have to struggle talking to a taxi cab driver for an hour ride to the airport, that’s nothing that you can re-create on a college campus,” Willman said as an example. “You have to go out there and you have to experience it.”

With the ISU graduation ceremony held Saturday, he is now thinking about what steps to take next.

“This summer, I’m staying in Iowa for the first time in a while,” Willman said. “Then I will be going, at the end of August, to the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, so it’s their development school to get my master’s (degree) in research for international development.”

After that, he said he is currently interested in getting into project management for a non-profit organization, charity, international governmental organization or another entity.

“I really want to spend some time working in the development field, on the ground, whether that’s relief or aid work,” Willman said, adding one area will always have his heart. “I also do know that I always find myself gravitating toward the Middle East and North Africa, so that would probably be my focus area.”

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Contact Adam Sodders at (641) 753-6611 or asodders@timesrepublican.com