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The Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology

Jordan College Dean Spotlight: Dr. Rolston St. Hilaire

Dean Rolston St. Hilaire, food science and nutrition department chair Dr. Erin Dormedy and student Henry DeJesus

(September 20, 2022) -- Dr. Rolston St. Hilaire officially started his new role as Dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology last week, but his vision for its future started taking shape much earlier as he researched its programs and interviewed for the position last spring.

The Jordan College's ninth Dean offers a wide range of experience and impressive accomplishments tied to teaching, research and overseeing the Plant Science Department at New Mexico State University as well as its extension programs. He has been at the Las Cruces, N.M. institution since 1998, after receiving his doctoral degree from Iowa State University and master's and bachelor's degrees from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. 

Like many of our students, his passion for agriculture is rooted in the hands-on experience from working in his family farming operation as well as a university student. He also shares a special twist, since his father was an extension agent and agricultural educator on the island of Dominica. 

Read more about Dean St. Hilaire's road to Fresno State, and things that attracted him to this position in this interview.


Q: Can you share how agriculture has been a part of your life since when you were young?

St. Hilaire: “I grew up on a small Caribbean island (Dominica), and agriculture is 60 percent of the economy. I was surrounded by ag, and my family had a small farm that my grandfather and father ran. It had bananas and other tropical crops like plantains. There were root crops for consumption and some permanent tree crops, too. I worked with bananas the most along with other vegetable crops. I also worked with the banana crop in a lot of different hands-on roles. I’d dig holes, harvest, sleeve, and then transport them and other vegetables. I also remember preparing the planting beds for carrots and tomatoes.” 

St. Hilaire: “I also remember harvesting bay leaf. The island has a strong industry tied to it, so it’s very profitable. There are distilleries that distill the oil from the leaves into an essential oil, which is used in cosmetics and perfumes.

St. Hilaire: “We also had a few head of cattle, and my dad had a small poultry operation, which I enjoyed helping with. I’d make the rounds and pick the eggs each morning. We later lived in town, but we would come back and work on the farm in the summer to generate money for school. I gained a real appreciation for hard work, and learning about the profitability of enterprises piqued my interest.” 


Q: Talk about your father’s background in agriculture and how that has influenced you.

”Besides being a small-time farmer, my father also worked for the government as an extension agronomist. In those days, the job titles sometimes changed depending on where he was working. He was also an ag instructor and would move around the island and be stationed in different parts, or he might also be a superintendent or a foreman. Eventually we resettled back to where our farm was. My dad would go out often and meet with farmers and try to help them, and their livelihood would often depend on his advice. I remember one farmer had a problem with his cabbage crop. As I watched them talk, I could see the anxiety in the grower’s eyes tied to that pest. My father talked to him about a spray regimen that would help. As an ag person you have to have a technical background because people’s lives are depending on that advice. That education and seeing the industry up close made me think that this was a good profession to go into. From there, I went to high school, then to a forestry and ag college, what’s now known as the University of Trinidad and Tobago at Centeno, for my first two years of my university education.”


Q: Given your own university experiences, how has agriculture continued to shape your career path?

“When I went to Trinidad I became really attracted to agriculture (as a professional option). I see similarities in my education at Trinidad to Fresno State. Even though it was a two-year program, it was very practical, and had various hands-on courses like vegetable crop production. You essentially had to produce a crop for the class. If you wanted to grow lettuce you had to choose a seed and then plant it and make sure you did it correctly. Then you’d disk the field, provide an appropriate nutrient regime, prepare transplants, and then apply the agronomy principles to produce a crop. Instructors would do random checks on our plots to make sure they were weed-free and had appropriate nutrients. We had a small livestock unit with sheep, goats, and a dairy where we had to milk the cows, and the milk would be used in the campus cafeteria. I also studied poultry and raised chickens and learned about their care and the importance of immunizations.” 


Q: Tie any of those experiences into what you’ve seen with our first visits to our 1,000-acre University Agricultural Laboratory on campus.

“Seeing the Fresno State farm was very impressive, and it felt like somewhere I had studied before. I loved how the students were involved in every aspect. When I spoke with a student at the farm market, it re-emphasized that this is a school that is serious about the entrepreneurial spirit. Students are involved with Fresno State-branded products and also adding value to them. A student can see all different aspects from the raw commodity to the processed stage. It’s important for students to be engaged on the farm and in charge of commodities. It is also really powerful for students to see the retail and business side and what it takes to get a product to market. These experiences are preparing them to be our next leaders. We need to work more students into the enterprise and keep them engaged so they don’t have to look for jobs off-campus. That experience also helps to recruit and retain students.” 


Q: Expand a little more about the value-added part, because that seemed to be something you emphasized during your interviews on campus with various stakeholders, faculty and staff.

“One of our contributions can be to help analyze the sustainability and profitability of products from the Central Valley. Fresno State is nationally recognized in the areas of water and irrigation research so that’s a great head start for our Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT) and related entities. It’s key to leverage what’s already being done here and then link to the big issues tied to agriculture and water and other areas like climate smart research. Another example is how labor (availability) is becoming an increasingly major cost component, so we need to look at ways to help growers be more profitable. We can possibly connect our faculty, staff and researchers with national funds or new initiatives to study topics like this.”


Q: Talk about some of the opportunities tied to diversity, equity and inclusion at Fresno State you’re attracted to, since you’ve been active in campus leadership and similar areas at New Mexico State University.

“Both universities have strong HSI (Hispanic Serving Institutions) reputations, as well as ties to many other demographics. I am bilingual and that has helped me to understand the nuanced needs of different cultures. As an HSI university, we have to understand the needs of our constituents and different modes and needs for learning. For example, at New Mexico State, we looked at the barriers for students at community colleges and transitioning to four-year programs. We need to study the needs of underrepresented students who get associate degrees, help attract them to agriculture, and improve their transition and value-added experiences. Agriculture is career-oriented and has a whole gamut of opportunities for students to grow within. If we can help lessen the barriers that students might have to college, based on economics or other areas, that’s important. We need to remind them about the Jordan College's affordability, its close proximity to their homes, and other ways to make it more familiar to them. We’ve seen in research that when we offer interdepartmental student mentoring as they transition to a four-year setting it makes their adjustment that much easier. We also want to find unique and new ways to engage our students to prepare them to be the next generation of leaders. I’ve also learned a lot about these areas from my bachelor’s and master’s programs at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez and doctoral program at Iowa State University.”


Q: What was your impression of campus when you visited it (before you became the Dean)?

“I really liked how beautiful it is, especially for someone who has taught a lot of urban landscape design courses. I was impressed how the grounds were well kept and maintained. The atmosphere was relaxed and felt like a home. I enjoyed walking through the library, and felt that students were engaged, and that they felt safe there and welcome. After interacting with the leadership, faculty and staff, I thought the mission was really clear, and everybody seemed engaged and ready to work as a team. After my interview and visit, I told my family (when I got home) that it was a great college, and if they extended the offer to me, I hope I could fit in and make a contribution.”


Q: Looking at your career path with over 30 years as an administrator, faculty member, researcher or student, how have these prior experiences prepared you for this opportunity?

“Most recently, I’ve been the (plant science) department head for seven years and my portfolio of responsibilities has been really broad, so it gives me a large toolbox to work as your Dean with a wide group of constituents on complex issues. I have worked with research, teaching, and extension service units.  My connection to private industry will be very helpful and understanding the value of private-public partnerships, and how important it is to properly engage with our corporate partners. Private industry can help us engage in research, as well as fundraising, especially in an ag-based community. I’ve done work with farmers, and we have to understand them, and they have to trust us, too. That relationship can help us test things in research. It’s very valuable for an ag college and for the Dean and his department chairs to have those partnerships.”


Q: You have a broad background in many areas of research - what areas are you attracted to that are connected to our programs?

“I look forward to learning about all the nuanced areas that make the Central Valley so special and unique. There are many opportunities tied to climate, smart farming, and water research, as well as value-added agriculture and emerging technology. An example is agriculture’s ties to voltaic systems and electrical energy production. Fresno State has a unique opportunity for research in that area, and I am truly convinced that it would give us an advantage. It’s already happening in areas in the West that are using solar technology as does New Mexico or other nearby states. Fresno State is close to a lot of agricultural production areas, and it can be a profitable way to engage that community. There isn’t a lot of research going on in that area so we’re just at the tip of it. That’s just one of the ideas I proposed in my interview, and there’s many more we can pursue.”


Q: I know the campus announced your hiring in June, and you had some prior commitments that delayed your start date to September. What have you been busy with in the interim process?

“It’s been a very busy summer both professionally for myself and my family. There have been a lot of responsibilities to either finish or transition to others at New Mexico State, besides the moving arrangements. I also had some family commitments such as helping to move one of my two children to UC San Francisco.” 


Q: Can you relate your own sons’ college experiences to your role working with students?

“When I talk to students, I talk to them like I would my own, with a conviction for promoting our programs. Parents are entrusting their daughters and sons to us, and I want to help them achieve their dreams. One of my sons had to decide between several programs that were both close and far away, and he ended up staying near home to study chemical engineering at NMSU. It was probably a situation similar to a lot of Fresno State agriculture students. After comparing all his options, he felt really comfortable with the strength of the programs that were next door.” 


Q: What do you do in your spare time to relax when you’re away from work?

“I’m a lifelong athlete, and I ran the 800 meters for the track team at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. I still run recreationally, and get my morning run in when I can. I did a few triathlons before the pandemic and also enjoy playing golf, too. I try to balance the demands of my job and my personal life. Finding time to relax and exercise also gives me time to think, and it’s important to find time to step away from the office.”


* Link to Dean Rolston St. Hilaire staff profile