FEATURE STORY: Sandra Witte: Going from fork to farm
Sandra Witte’s journey from dietetics to ag college leadership is the story of a woman forging her own path. Having served as department chair of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition, she became associate dean for the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology in 2007. In 2014, she became interim dean, then accepted the job permanently this March.
Starting out as a female interested in chemistry, she found that her career choices seemed somewhat limited.
“At the time I was starting college, two things were still prevalent in our society — certain jobs were acceptable for women (nursing, teaching, secretary, etc.) and then it was expected women were going to leave the workforce when they started their family,” she said. “I discovered in high school that I really loved chemistry and pursued that when I started college, thinking about becoming a pharmacist. However, there wasn't much support for that on any front. I eventually put it together that nutrition was chemistry-based and appealed to the nurturer in me as well. And voilà! Nutrition became my path.”
Dr. Witte’s career can be described as being more on the fork end of "farm to fork.”
“I started teaching as a lecturer in spring 1981,” she said. “I taught as a lecturer off and on over the next 10 years while doing other things. For five of those years, I also worked as a Registered Dietitian at Fresno Community Hospital (now Community Regional Medical Center). While working at FCH, I developed a dietetic internship program.”
She left FCH to go to Oregon State University and work on her Ph.D. in Nutrition and Food Management. During that time, she also taught part-time for Fresno State. Then, in 1992, she was hired into a tenure-track position in the Department of Enology, Food Science and Nutrition (now the Department of Food Science and Nutrition).
It was a journey that brought her into leadership, where she feels she is making a difference.
“I enjoy challenges and there are plenty of those when you are a dean,” she said. “Seeing our students grow, mature and increase their knowledge and skills, is what really motivates me. It's also a joy to work with our dedicated faculty and staff to move the Jordan College forward.”
As dean, she delegates much of the academic affairs side of things to the associate dean, a position she once held herself. This frees her up to concentrate on building programs and initiatives.
“We have a very robust research program in the Jordan College, including the California Agricultural Technology Institute (CATI), being a member campus of the Agricultural Research Initiative (ARI), and the 30,000 square-foot research building about to open,” she said. “I work with faculty and center directors on all of these programs.”
Another major part of her responsibilities is building and maintaining relationships. The success of her college’s programs is dependent on the support of agricultural industry partners.
“With our prime location in one of the most productive agricultural regions in the nation, we are surrounded by 'the real thing.’ And the more that our agricultural community can be a part of the educational programs we offer, the richer we are,” she said.
But of all her responsibilities, she believes the most important is ensuring that the Jordan College provides students with the best possible educational experience by optimizing both resources and relationships.
“The budget continues to be a major challenge when it comes to moving the college forward,” she said. “However, I am committed to doing the best we can with what we have and to continually explore opportunities to enhance our resources.”
There is always a lot going on in the Jordan College, Dr. Witte noted.
“In addition to the upcoming opening of the new Jordan Agricultural Research Center, we are also working on two million dollars worth of deferred maintenance on our University Agricultural Laboratory (farm) and developing a strategic plan for campus water initiatives,” she said. “We are developing an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the agricultural program at the University of the Azores and planning the activities for the first group of students who will visit us for a tour of California agriculture this fall. That's just a few of the things going on.”
The hectic pace of Valley agriculture demands Dr. Witte’s best, and she seems particularly suited to the task.
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