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MAC agriculture student wins state ‘Spirit’ award

PARK HILLS — Agriculture wasn’t a career she would have chosen when she was younger. But Mineral Area College student Stephanie Payne, a “Breaking Traditions” state award winner, says without hesitation that agriculture chose her.

Payne is the Breaking Traditions: Postsecondary/Adult Daphna Jones Spirit Award Winner, after having been nominated for the state honor by MAC Agribusiness Department Chair Alan Bayless and Missouri Career Education Coordinator Tanya DeGonia. The Spirit Award is awarded to a nontraditional student who has overcome undue hardships, braved harsh obstacles, stood courageously against troubles, and has the tenacity to surpass all the odds.

The Missouri Breaking Traditions contest recognizes outstanding students in nontraditional career and technical education programs. Nontraditional means occupations or fields of work in which employees from one gender comprise less than 25 percent of those employed in that occupation or field. For almost 20 years, Breaking Traditions has honored outstanding students who have chosen specific career and technical programs based on their interests and abilities, and who have not let their gender influence their career decisions.

After two of her six children were diagnosed with Autism, Payne researched several methods of therapies to help them.

When Payne replaced their diet with fresh, locally grown, organic vegetables, their “nonverbal” prognosis switcheddramatically to “verbal.”

“My mission is to learn as much as possible in an effort to better serve other’s dietary needs and raise awareness to the abilities, rather than inabilities, of special individuals by improving their diet,” she said.

To do so, she plans to facilitate an agri-community, a working farm that’s a safe place for people with developmental disabilities to learn a seed-to-harvest operation.

“One in 110 children is diagnosed with Autism every year,” she said. “These are the numbers of our future workers. Eventually, they’ll be grown. I’m certain we don’t have enough institutions or funding to house all of them and provide them with the therapies they need on a day-to-day basis…A facility like this would prove the amazing talents these individuals possess.”

Her pursuit of ag studies has not been without struggle. Payne and her family of eight have had to move several times because of unhealthy housing issues. Her children’s health issues and child care present challenges, as well.

And, she said, when she started attending college at the age of 31, she was initially taken aback by the youth and agricultural backgrounds of her fellow ag students.

“Fear on that first day overwhelmed me, because I knew these ‘kids’ had major agricultural experience and I had little,” she said. “Rather than feel intimidated, I used it as an opportunity to raise awareness for a cause I believe in wholeheartedly.”

She said the MAC ag club, PAS, also helped her get to know her classmates, and they her, especially through the state conference.

“When attending our state PAS conference, I had the pleasure of getting to know a few of my

classmates,” she said. “These were amazing and intelligent young ladies. I went through several major life changes during this semester, including relocation not once, but twice due to health issues found inside our home. Our vehicle has had nothing but problems lately, too. I continue to push forward despite the many obstacles set before me, for the cause of autism — and to set an example f courage, strength, and endurance by continuing my education for other students to look up to.”

Payne said several of her classmates told her she was their role model. “I was humbled,” she said. “Ultimately, they inspire me more than I do them. The realization came to me during that trip that I had no choice but to keep going.”

Despite her struggles, she has managed to maintain a 3.7 GPA, won many other awards, remained active in helping with Missouri’s Autism Bill, and stays passionate about her career choice. Payne has received a scholarship to complete her education at the University of Idaho to major in Ag Science, Communication, and Leadership with a Family Life emphasis. She will also receive a scholarship from the Foundation for Missouri Women.

“For students who are considering nontraditional programs, I’d say ‘go for it,’ provided it’s something you’re passionate about,” she said. “All too often, I see people going to school and graduating with degrees, just to go out and earn a paycheck. If you’re going to invest in school, you must achieve a degree you’re enthusiastic about.

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘If you’re not happy with where you are, you won’t be happy with where you’re going.’ There’s no sense in pursuing a degree and all of the blood, sweat and tears that goes along with it, if you’re going to be miserable with the end result.

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