It started out as a typical crisp fall Friday night in the country, watching the sun set over a freshly harvested corn field. Instead of heading back to their farms for the night, four Illinois State Department of Agriculture students were waiting in line together in Pesotum to meet their scholarship donor, country megastar Luke Bryan.
The son of a peanut farmer from Georgia, Bryan is celebrating 10 years of performing Farm Tours at farm-based venues throughout the South and Midwest. He donates a portion of the proceeds for scholarships for students from farm families attending a college or university near the tour stops. As of this year, Bryan has donated more than 50 Farm Tour Scholarships.
This year Illinois State University’s Department of Agriculture was a beneficiary, awarding the Luke Bryan Farm Tour Scholarship to graduate student Joshua McWilliams of Fairbury, senior Zachary Rippel of Roanoke, junior Benjamin Temple of Serena, and senior Susie Thompson of Maple Park.
“Four fantastic students received these scholarships, which are one of the largest scholarships offered by the ag department,” Department of Agriculture Chair Rob Rhykerd said. “The students are all leaders in the Department of Agriculture, student organizations, and have a high grade point average. Receiving this donation was truly a welcomed surprise. It helps highlight the importance of agriculture in people’s lives and our community.”
“Bryan’s background in agriculture and the qualities the farming lifestyle instill in someone are something you cannot measure,” said Waylon Weatherholt, farm tour manager. “Farmers are the backbone of America and this is just one small thing Bryan can do to show tribute to these unsung heroes. His hope is that it lightens a bit of the burden of college tuition for these families.”
Agriculture education and leadership major Joshua McWilliams, a third-generation farmer, has been working on the farm since he was three years old tagging along with his grandpas who farmed in central Illinois. He worked 20 hours a week helping on the farm up until two years ago when he became a training and development intern at the Illinois Farm Bureau. As an agribusiness operations intern at Country Financial, McWilliams works 15 hours a week during planting and harvest season helping a family friend farm.
“Although I’m not on the farm every day, I still touch agriculture every day in a different way working as a farm underwriter and as a part of a training team,” he said. “I’m passionate about promoting agriculture because there are so many people who are misinformed about the industry and what it provides people. From the food you eat to the clothes you wear, and even girls’ makeup, agriculture touches us all every day.”
McWilliams was drawn to Illinois State because of the small, family atmosphere of the agriculture department, where he feels that the professors do a great job of educating and preparing students for the workforce.
“I was shocked to learn that I had received the Luke Bryan Farm Tour Scholarship. I think that it is really cool that Bryan is giving back to agriculture families and investing in our futures in education,” he said. “After meeting Bryan I was amazed at how humble and grateful he was that we came to meet him and support his farm tour. He told me that he hoped by investing in our education that it helped us not only financially but academically.”
Receiving the scholarship takes some stress off, allowing him to work fewer hours and focus more on his master’s thesis.
In addition to his studies, McWilliams is vice president of the Hoof N’ Horn Club and is on the alumni executive board for Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership.
McWilliams plans to find a full-time job within the Farm Bureau and Country Financial family promoting agriculture and helping customers with their agriculture needs.
A third-generation farmer, Zachary Rippel developed a passion for agriculture working 15 to 20 hours a week helping his grandpa farm. He loves the diversity farming offers and the personal relationships he’s developed with people in the industry. “I also love that agriculture is leading technology trends consistently to bring better yields and provide for the needs of the world,” he said.
While attending Illinois Central College, one of his professors, an Illinois State alum, recommended that he attend Illinois State to pursue a degree in agribusiness and agronomy management.
“They’ve got a really good program here where it is really personal with small class sizes and individualized attention from professors,” Rippel said. “I came here by recommendation, but I have stayed here because I love it.”
“I thought it was really cool to receive the Luke Bryan Farm Tour Scholarship. It means that I don’t have to take out additional loans this year. I’m thankful that Bryan sees the need for farmers, and the importance of agriculture and supporting students like me who are paying their own way through college,” he said. “When I met Bryan he thanked me for coming to meet him and asked me what I was studying at Illinois State. It was really nice to get the opportunity to meet and thank him for his generosity.”
In addition to his studies, Rippel is treasurer of the Agriculture Ambassadors, member of the FarmHouse Fraternity, and sergeant at arms of Alpha Zeta Agriculture Honors Fraternity. Rippel plans to pursue a career in elevator operations management.
Agriculture education major Benjamin Temple is a sixth-generation farmer who helps farm property that has been in the family for over 100 years. “Growing up on the farm made me passionate about advocating for agriculture. When I was in high school I became even more involved when I joined the FFA.”
After visiting his brother when he was an agronomy management major at ISU, Temple had the opportunity to see the campus and hear about his great experience.
“Illinois State is only an hour from home so it affords me the privilege of going home on the weekends,” Temple said. “I’m just thrilled with the faculty and the Department of Agriculture and all they do for students.
“I was speechless when I found out that I received the Luke Bryan Farm Tour Scholarship. It is awesome that Bryan does the Farm Tour and awards scholarships to give back to farmers,” he said. “When I met Bryan he congratulated me for receiving the scholarship and said that he hopes the scholarship helps me out financially. It was a great experience getting to meet and thank him.”
For Temple, receiving this scholarship alleviates the financial burden not only for him, but also his family. In addition to his studies, Temple is president of the Collegiate Farm Bureau and an Agriculture Ambassador. Temple plans to teach agriculture near his hometown of Serena.
Agriculture communications and leadership and animal industry management major Susie Thompson developed a passion for agriculture when her parents introduced her to 4-H in middle school. In high school, her family moved to a 15-acre farmette where they raise cattle and ride horses.
Her passion for agriculture continued to grow when she joined the local chapter of the FFA in high school. That lead to a one-year position as a National FFA state officer after her freshman year of college. As a state officer, she learned that she loved sharing and helping others learn more about the agriculture industry.
This past summer she was a sales intern with Sygenta US. “I really enjoyed helping educate different growers about the various types of seeds and enjoyed the flexibility that the career offers,” she said.
“I decided to come to Illinois State because they have a really strong ag program, and I have stayed because the people that I’ve been able to meet and work with, between the professors and my fellow students, have been second to none.”
As a huge fan of Luke Bryan, Thompson was really excited to hear that Illinois State was picked as one of the schools that he provided scholarships to this year. “I have aspirations after graduation to go to graduate school and receiving this scholarship to help pay for my undergraduate degree allows me to save more money for my graduate degree,” she said.
“When I met Bryan I mentioned that I was a scholarship recipient and his face instantly lit up and he shook my hand. It was evident that he was genuinely excited that we had come to the concert to meet him. It made me really happy to see that well-known people like him really care about agriculture and helping students.”
In addition to her studies, Thompson is also an athlete on the Equestrian Team, first vice president of Sigma Alpha-Beta, and president of the Agriculture Ambassadors.
Thompson plans to pursue a career in the agriculture sales industry.
Luke Bryan’s scholarship gift is part of the University’s $150 million comprehensive campaign, Redbirds Rising: The Campaign for Illinois State. The most ambitious campaign in the University’s history, Redbirds Rising supports scholarship, leadership, and innovation. More than 45,000 donors have already contributed nearly $124 million in outright gifts and commitments since the beginning of the campaign. To make a gift or find out how to be part of this exciting transformation, visit RedbirdsRising.IllinoisState.edu.