The shortest distance from point A to point B is a straight line, but Merrie Winfrey’s career path has been neither short nor straight.
Winfrey moved more than 6,000 miles and earned three advanced degrees before returning to her native Blacksburg to work on a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
After practicing law in Kentucky for nearly seven years and spending two-and-a-half years in Mongolia with the Peace Corps, she made a career switch that brought her back into academe.
A multimedia learning and communications specialist with the Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education program, Winfrey has found her calling in life – helping teachers internationally become great at their craft.
Armed with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English as well as a law degree from the University of Kentucky, she went into a litigation practice that included both education and employment law.
But long hours and stress took a toll. Beset with doubts about her career choice and hungry for foreign experiences, Winfrey joined the Peace Corps in 2010.
“I helped the English teachers that I worked with on their methodologies, making it more student-centered, more interactive, rather than just writing things on the board or lecturing at the students,” Winfrey said of her work in the northeast corner of Mongolia at a vocational college that focused on training and retraining students for career trades.
She began as an English teacher and ended up training the instructors as well.
The experience inspired her to commit a third year to the Peace Corps to tackle a project to help teachers master Moodle, a learning management system. While new to the program herself, Winfrey soon became an expert, writing guidelines for the teachers in both English and Mongolian.
The work was cut short when she returned to Virginia to help care for her ailing mother. But Winfrey’s time in Mongolia made a lasting impact on her.
“The Peace Corps changed my career,” Winfrey said. “That experience with the teachers, and helping them become the best teachers they could, was so thrilling. I got more out of that than I did teaching students directly. I think that’s fun, but I felt like my greater impact was helping the teachers.”
Winfrey’s new interest guided her to graduate studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she earned a master’s degree in instructional systems development. In 2015 she came to Virginia Tech to work for the Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education project.
Begun in 2012 as a five-year project, the project's mission is to improve the quality of the agricultural labor force around the world through training and education. The project is managed by the Office of International Research, Education, and Development, part of Outreach and International Affairs, and funded by USAID.
The project's work has evolved. Early days focused on performing assessments in countries looking to strengthen their agricultural systems. One such assessment led to the development of the Innovate-Armenia project, which works to improve the competitiveness of Armenia’s agricultural workforce.
Recently, Joe Marcy of the Department of Food Science and Technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, joined professors from Penn State University to teach a four-week Food Safety Systems Management program in support of Innovate-Armenia.
Today, the Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education program spends more time on research and bringing groups together. At last fall’s RUFORUM Conference in South Africa, for instance, the project held a youth-development event that focused on learning through experiences. Representatives from universities worked with 4-H groups in four countries – Senegal, Liberia, Ghana, and Tanzania – to improve agricultural education.
Winfrey's work includes developing training modules and other instructional materials. The project's experts provide content, while Winfrey, drawing on her background in instructional learning, makes the modules interesting and informative. One module focused on gender bias in agriculture; a future module will examine entrepreneurship education.
Winfrey is also liaison to Agrilinks, USAID's agriculture website and the go-to platform for agricultural information. Agrilinks provides an outlet for the project's resources, some developed by Winfrey, which include publications, blogs, webinars, and online chats.
The winding career road brought Winfrey to a good place.
“I felt lucky that this job came available when it did,” she said. “It has been really great and a really great learning experience, because I’ve worn so many hats and done so many different things."
Written by Melissa McKeown