Unusually Clever People

From FFA Superstar to Botanic Garden Spokesman

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Devin Dotson in Bartholdi Park at the U.S. Botanic Garden

I recently met the new public affairs officer for the U.S. Botanic Gardens and when I found out his degree is in agricultural communications, I had to find out more.

Devin Dotson grew up in a small rural town in northwest Alabama, where his family grew their own vegetables and ornamentals on a half-acre lot. He took agriculture courses in high school – surveying, ag mechanics, plant and animal sciences – and got super-active in Future Farmers of America, which turns out still exists! In much of the country, at least.

And to my surprise, FFA isn’t just for livestock-raising. Members compete in such events as vocal quartets, string bands and public speaking, and Devin’s group won first place state-wide in all three. His performing groups were the official entertainment at FFA’s national conferences.

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That’s Devin, second from the left.

Agriculture and music? Well, why not? And check out this video from 2013 – those kids can play!

On top of all that, at 14 Devin started working at his local newspaper and decided to pursue that path in college – until he was told that everyone is majoring in communications these days and he should do something a bit different.  Specialize.

So if your chosen specialty is communicating about plants, where do you go to learn that? Turns out, to one of the three or four schools in the U.S. offering a degree in agricultural communications, one of which is Auburn University right there in Alabama. Here’s how Auburn describes the degree:

The Agricultural Communications program is designed to produce graduates who possess exceptional communication skills meshed with a strong science-based background in agriculture and natural resources. This degree enables graduates to communicate vital information related to science, agriculture, natural resources, food and the environment to diverse audiences.

So Devin enrolled there, took courses in ag and communications, while working on the school newspaper and in the campus Sustainability Office. As a volunteer he was Auburn’s Agricultural Ambassador, traveling the state to career days.

Next Devin went to the University of Florida for a masters degree in communications but again with a specialty – a combination of International Environmental Communications and Latin American Studies. (His other undergrad major had been in Spanish.) Devin’s masters thesis was about how journalists cover climate change in Chile. How cool is that?

His first job brought him to D.C., where he did communications for American Rivers for almost six years and got to write about water a lot but also plants in their role as green infrastructure. He visited the U.S. Botanic Garden regularly during those years and now says it’s “cool to be here on the back side.” Plus, he gets to continue writing about conservation.

Southerners Losing their Accents
Veering off-topic for a moment, I have to mention that you’d be hard-pressed to guess that Devin is from the Deep South from the way he talks.  So what happened to his accent? He explains that he did enough traveling in high school to experience people “looking askance” at him, questioning his knowledge, prejudging him based on his accent, so he decided to lose it. Studying broadcast journalism helped move him toward that accentless ideal of newscasters from Anywhere, U.S.A.

I couldn’t resist telling Devin about my own bout with anti-Southern bigotry when I left central Virginia to go to college in the North during the contentious Vietnam War years. Like him, I learned to enunciate – no more dropping those g’s! Unlike Alabamans, I’d never learned to say “fixing to” or “might could,” so didn’t have to unlearn those. But “y’all” is a conversational staple for all Southerners and neither of us is willing to give it up. It’s a damn useful word and far better than “you guys.”

Posted by on April 24, 2015 at 8:04 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.
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13 responses to “From FFA Superstar to Botanic Garden Spokesman”

  1. Pam/Digging says:

    Interesting post and an intriguing field Devin has chosen. As for his Southern drawl, I get why he’d want to lose it, because the bias against Southern accents is real. But as a commentary on life, how sad that we may all end up sounding alike in the end. Regional accents, like regional plants, foods, and fashion, make the world more interesting. I say, embrace that twang like Matthew McConaughey and just keep on droppin’ those g’s, y’all!

  2. Allen Bush Allen Bush says:

    I love regional accents. They’re a diminishing commodity. I’ve got one and I’m not giving it up. Devin can relearn how to talk Alabama. Once you learn how to ride a bike… Hurray to Devin and the FFA! Thanks for the interesting story, Susan.

  3. Jack says:

    What an interesting degree! I’d never have thought something like that even existed. A friend of mine studied an agriculture degree and always said that whilst it was interesting to him, he found it offered little value to many employers. Unfortunate, but just as there is bias with accents, there is bias with degree titles.

  4. David says:

    Does he have a twitter? I’d like to follow his reports and USBG news.

  5. anne says:

    Our county has a very active FFA group, and one of the things I love about it is that they welcome kids from all backgrounds, not just the farm kids. And they work very hard and learn so much. As for accents, decades ago I participated in an international exchange program with a group of other college students from around the country, but mostly the east coast and midwest. They immediately pegged my California accent, which I had no idea I had, making so many assumptions about me involving beaches, hot tubs, hippies and in-line skating (hot at the time). The accent bias goes all ways!

  6. sounds like a communication major who found a focus in horticulture. Great story.Would that more communication majors could develop a similar passion for a field or area of focus.

  7. kermit says:

    I never imagined that such a degree existed, but if I’d been asked about it, I think I would have decided that it was necessary and a Good Thing®.

    Half my family is southern, but I grew up in the northeast, so my accent is TV generic. But visiting my southern cousins every summer, I picked up y’all from them. We need a second person plural pronoun, and it’s a good one. (Why did English speakers lose it in the first place, I wonder?)

  8. Laura Bell says:

    I’m from a rural town in Northwest AL! Further north than he is, I see after tracking down his hometown, but it’s great to see an Alabama son doing so well.

    Totally understand about dropping the accent, though I dropped most of mine when I was a child. When even your twangy cousins comment on the thickness of your accent, you might start emulating the accents on TV rather than those you hear around you. What remains of my accent, will remain. I like the way I sound. Sad that an accent that used to be thought of as charming, however, is now (wrongly) associated with low intelligence.

  9. Devin Dotson says:

    Hi all — thanks for the kind words. It’s a great joy to be able to combine my training in communicating about science and agriculture with my personal passion for plants. There are still a few universities throughout the country that offer degrees in Agricultural Communication, so maybe there will continue be others that come from those with interests in communicating about plants!

    David, I don’t have a twitter set up yet, but keep your eyes open. I’ll be launching the USBG on a few social media platforms (including twitter) soon.

    Best wishes for your gardens, y’all. ; )