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OSU graduate student holds title of Nkosuohene
By Trisha Gedon
When students continue their education at colleges and universities, many of them are known not only by their name, but also as a former baseball or football player, the drum major for the marching band, president of the student council or a member of the chess club or 4-H.
However, one student working on a graduate degree within the Master of International Agriculture Program recently arrived at Oklahoma State University with a rather unique identifier – that of sub-chief to a West African village.
John Romo, of Weslaco, Texas, also is known as a Nkosuohene, which is a subchief title that is part of the customary Akan chieftaincy. He received this honorary title in 2015 when he was in Adarkwa, Ghana, working for AgriCorps, a Peace Corps-type organization that connects American agriculture professionals to agricultural educational opportunities in developing countries.
Following his graduation from Texas A&M University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science, Romo worked for the Walt Disney Corporation as a conservation education intern at Animal Kingdom. He returned to College Station, Texas, where he worked for the university in the Office of Admissions. In August 2014, he was selected as part of AgriCorps’ inaugural class of fellows to live and work in Ghana for a year. Upon returning to the United States in July 2015, Romo took on the role as the organization’s director of recruitment.
The month before he left, the village of Adarkwa honored Romo with a traditional ceremony in which he was named Nkosuohene. The Nkosuohene is the leader for progress and development of a community, and a rare honor for a foreigner.
“I’d been there about five months when I was approached by the elders of the village who told me they needed to speak with me about something important,” he says. “They told me they appreciated my time there and were grateful for the knowledge I was sharing and wanted me to be a part of their community forever. That’s when they told me they were making me a sub-chief. I was humbled and honored with this gesture.”
The ceremony itself, which included powder and clay being sprinkled on his body, having a goat slaughtered and the blood spread on his feet, and then being carried through the village on the shoulders of youth in the area, was like nothing Romo had ever experienced, but is something he will remember for the rest of his life.
Romo says he thoroughly enjoyed his time in Ghana, especially his work with an entrepreneurial project with 4-H’ers.
“I worked with an existing junior high school 4-H Club to create a student nursery,” Romo says. “We grew cocoa, moringa and oil palm seedlings, which were then sold to local farmers. The proceeds were used to reinvest in future projects, as well as purchasing things for the school.”
Through AgriCorps, he worked as an extension agent, agriculture instructor and 4-H adviser. Romo worked alongside 4-H’ers to help empower them and demonstrate they can stay in their local area to farm and make a living.
"These students didn’t see farming as a choice of occupation,” he says. “They simply saw it as something they have to do because they have no other choices. Through these projects, we worked together to learn the many ways that agriculture could serve as a profitable business.”
His time in Ghana was not only about teaching youth about agriculture. He also worked with them on public speaking and taught them about nutrition and the benefits of vegetables.
However, he says the learning was a two-way street as the youth in the village were instrumental in helping him learn Twi, which is the local language.
As involved as Romo is in agriculture today, this path is one he started on by chance. He was raised by his mother and stepfather in a Rio Grande Valley border town in South Texas. Like many Hispanic families in the area, Romo’s only knowledge of agriculture came from his grandparents and great-grandparents who served as migrant workers. Agriculture had somewhat of a negative stigma in his mind.
As a freshman in high school, he had a gap in his class schedule, so his guidance counselor put him in an agriculture class.
“This was mostly due to my own indecisiveness in choosing an elective,” he says. “However, my curiosity in agriculture started in that class and the FFA program, and later developed into a passion. My agriculture science teacher was an Aggie and encouraged me to attend Texas A&M University. I had decided to pursue a degree in agriculture in hopes to become a high school ag teacher.”
It was during his time at Texas A&M that he first became interested in international opportunities. He traveled to Panama while in college and later studied abroad in New Zealand and Australia, discovering the many paths a person can take with a degree in agriculture. With these experiences, Romo chose to continue his education because he wanted to challenge himself and learn from others.
“My motivation roots from my experiences working with others, whether that be in an office in Texas, in a classroom in Ghana or on a farm in Panama,” he says. “I really enjoy meeting people and interacting with a completely different culture, and hopefully helping them gain access to information they don’t always have easy access to.”
While continuing his work with AgriCorps as director of recruitment, Romo visited more than 25 universities and attended conferences during fall 2015 and spring 2016. He also had an opportunity to travel back to Ghana and visit his village to see the progress being made there.
All of these experiences have helped prepare Romo for a successful journey at OSU. Shida Henneberry, Regents professor and Master of International Agricultural Program director, says Romo is the type of student who will do well in graduate school.
"John comes to MIAP having had significant international experiences and a great desire for helping others and making an impact,” Henneberry says. “Graduate students learn in theory, but having the experience is what makes the theory sink in. There is no substitute for actual experience in development work, and this is the reason we require students to have an in-depth international experience.”
She also says students like Romo go on to do great work for the world and the communities they serve.
“I’m very proud of our MIAP students, their level of preparation and their passion for helping the underprivileged through agricultural and educational development,” Henneberry says. “Our students make a significant impact through their international experiences while they are students. When our graduates do well in their jobs and have a great impact, it has a positive impact on OSU.”
Trent McKnight, founder of AgriCorps, says the organization expands the possibilities for fellows such as Romo by giving them a broadened sense of global agriculture and making them more competitive for a number of professional careers in agriculture.
“After learning about AgriCorps, John immediately signed up because he wanted to share his experiences with young people on the other side of the world,” says McKnight, a 2003 OSU alumnus with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics. “AgriCorps allows him to be part of a global community while using the skills he learned at the local level in South Texas.”
Romo said after speaking with several OSU alumni, he chose to continue his education at OSU and actually began taking online classes in 2015 before becoming established on campus this fall.
“I’m really looking forward to learning and working alongside the professors in the College of Agriculture during my time here at OSU. I hope to gain much experience and possibly obtain a Ph.D. I’d like to one day work at a university and share my knowledge with others who are interested in the field of agriculture and education,” Romo says.
Now that he is back on American soil for a while, Romo says he is thankful for his many experiences around the world.
“Working in a foreign place is a challenge, both personally and professionally. You’re placed in a totally different culture with very different amenities, and it can be frustrating at times,” he says. “Sometimes I just wanted to quit, but a conversation with a farmer or an evening of laughing with youth made me realize I was part of something that many people can’t imagine ever doing in their lives. I wouldn’t change my time in Ghana for anything.”
More stories like this are available for members of the OSU Alumni Association. STATE magazine is a benefit of membership in the OSU Alumni Association. To join or update your membership go to orangeconnection.org/join
Published by STATE Magazine Editor Elizabeth Keys, Winter 2016
Uploaded on December 1, 2016