Ed. note: An earlier version of this story, based on interviews with Alonge, indicated that he taught his Ajifolokun 20 years ago. Alonge later remembered that he taught his student 28 years ago. He also requested that his last quote be rephrased to better reflect his sentiments. This version reflects those updates.
When students at Homestead Middle School enter Adewale Alonge's agriculture class, they often aren't enthused. They come from families of mostly Hispanic migrant workers. They've likely spent hours in the fields near Miami, Fla. watching their parents work. Agriculture is something they know, too well. It's something they want to escape from.
As an immigrant from Nigeria, Alonge knows how difficult it is for them to think past their circumstances, about a life beyond the next harvest.
But in his classroom, a few plants can quickly become a field of dreams.
"I've walked in their shoes," Alonge says. "Neither my mom nor my dad went to school. Your parents do not dictate your future. In America, your attitude is your destiny."
Alonge grew up in Ibadan, a mid-sized city in southwest Nigeria in the '60s. As a child, he rarely ventured out beyond the city, hadn't ever set foot on a farm, until a middle school teacher sparked his interest in the science of growing things.
"Agriculture is so fundamental to any society. It's the means to our basic needs: food, clothing shelter, he explains. "Most youth don't understand where food comes from. Not just in terms of culture but environmental responsibility -- that there are finite resources and there are individual ways to preserve the earth."
Once he understood how agriculture affected the world around him, Alonge became a passionate scholar and evangelist on the subject, first earning a bachelor's degree in agricultural education in Nigeria. He came halfway across the world to continue his studies in the United States. In 1993, he earned a doctorate in Agricultural and Extension Education from Ames Iowa.
He wanted to help farmers understand how to grow more efficiently. But just as important to him, he wanted youth to understand how their actions and consumption affect others on a worldwide level.
"It's imperative that our students understand our food supply system and how we're linked globally," he says. "Even if they are not going to have a career in agriculture, that knowledge of their needs and their biosphere with limited resources is crucial to create socially responsible citizens."
Twenty years ago, Oyewole Ajifolokun was in Alonge's ninth-grade biology class in Nigeria. Even then, he remembers, Alonge had something remarkable that drew students to him. "He had an incredible knowledge on the subject," Ajifolokun says. "It was very unusual for a teacher to come to class without lecture notes, but he taught by heart."
Every day, Ajifolokun would watch Alonge dictate from memory for hours at a time, and joke with students as he drew detailed sketches to help them understand. Alonge remembered his students' names and where they had sat in his class, even five years after. "I began to see in my mind how I could be like this man," Ajifolokun says.
Alonge sparked something in him. "The way he taught biology made me fall in love with biology," he said. Ajifolokun went on to earn a doctorate in animal science and has since come to the United States to teach anatomy as an extension teacher at the University of Illinois.
New Home, Same Challenges
After Alonge finished his doctorate, he decided to dedicate himself to teaching underserved children in his new home country.
He soon found himself at Homestead, where he had his hands full. Hurricane Andrew had devastated the school and surrounding community just a year earlier.
"I came here a year after the hurricane, but even a year after it was like someone had dropped a major bomb. The whole city was devastated, people still living in shelters, schools still getting back on their feet. It was a post-conflict, post-disaster environment."
Alonge saw the mess as an opportunity. He had his students landscape the ruined grounds of the school and plant trees. It's a class tradition that has continued every year since.
Alonge's agriculture students study landscaping design and biotechnology. He keeps the program broad so that he can tailor the classes to individual interests and strengths. "You have to tap into their interests and cultivate lifelong means of sustenance," he explains. "What I've done is let them know agriculture is not just green crops, it's very science-oriented and that there are many opportunities in this field.
"I feel the challenge to bring in a new generation of scientists to help us grow food and improve our crops."
Being Poor Is Not An Excuse To Underachieve
In 2002, Alonge started a nonprofit, Africa Diaspora Partnership For Empowerment and Development, which arranges scholarships and training for young Nigerians.
The program now receives funding from the U.S. State Department to bring Nigerian college graduates to America to develop their entrepreneurial skills.
It's another way for him to give thanks for the opportunities provided to him as a young man but also a lesson for his students at Homestead.
The Miami-Dade School District isn't affluent. The vast majority of students at Alonge's school receive reduced price or free lunches. They come from uneducated and highly mobile families. He doesn't let them use this as a crutch.
"I talk about how lucky they are. I let them know that other kids, even if they're poor compared to many across the globe, have no excuse for not trying. I do work internationally and come back with stories to inspire them."
Alonge is now a Teaching Ambassador for the U.S. Department of Education. But while he regularly contributes to the national conversation on good teaching, it boils down to something far more elemental, he says.
"To me, farming is very symbolic. When you plant the seed, it's hard work. Your input-output ratio is almost always better if you take care of the plant. But if you don't provide for the plant, it won't do very well.
"It's very symbolic of taking care of a child. When you plant a seed today, it might take two or three years. You don't get immediate fruit. If you provide water and fertilizer, you will get a tree but it takes a lot of work and a belief that nature always comes through for you."
He uses this simple metaphor with his students as well.
"I tell the kids that if you put in a lot of work and believe in what you do, life will turn out all right for you," Alonge says. "It's a life lesson for them."
To learn more about Alonge's nonprofit, Africa Diaspora Partnership For Empowerment and Development visit ADPED.org.