The cow farmer who became a food security expert in Latin America

Adriana Tache | SIPA Class of 2017 | December 8, 2016

Growing up, Gary Verburg never imagined that life would take him from cleaning cow pens on a small dairy farm to pursuing a Master’s degree at a prestigious Ivy League university. Long hours working on the family farm taught him first-hand about sustenance through agriculture. With moral support from his family, he then took his dedication to making the world a more livable place in a journey he had never imagined possible.

Verburg is a 27 years old from a small town called Lacombe, in Alberta, Canada. He is in his second year of pursuing a MPA degree in Development Practice at SIPA. His drive to work in development was shaped by his own experience on the family farm. He took that experience to Honduras before coming to Columbia University. There he worked as a volunteer in community development and sustainable agriculture for a small NGO called Mundo Renovado. His life story would remain in development, he told me during our interview.  “I don’t feel like I hit a climax yet.”

Working two years in a welding shop…and hating it

Verburg’s parents hail from the Netherlands and “stuck around in the same community” in Canada, running a farm. He is the first generation to go to college, and although he is able to count on his family’s support, they weren’t able to give him any career guidance because his interests“were unfamiliar territory for them.” Without parental guidance, he felt as though his life had little direction after he graduated from high school. Verburg ended up working for two years in a welding shop. “I hated the job”, he told me. “I had no idea where I was going with my life.”

With the money he saved from his job, he was able to make a change. He went on to study Latin American Studies at the University of Calgary which got him closer to finding his purpose in life. After college, equipped with knowledge of Latin America, he started fundraising in the local community for his journey to Honduras. With help from a grant from the Canadian government, he helped implementing food security and sustainable agriculture programs in Honduras until he began his search for the right grad school.

Knowing that SIPA was the right fit

With his prior experience in agriculture and interest in development, SIPA became his top choice.

“I wanted to work in international development and I wanted to approach the issue from a public side. SIPA was the only program I considered from outside my country. The program was more practice focused which I thought would be really valuable afterwards.” Support from his parents and loans from the Canadian government made this option viable.

Once Verburg began attending the School of International and Public Affairs, he quickly noticed that his background was different from those of most students. “A lot of their parents have managed businesses, have been lawyers, physicians, working professionals. I’ve been working on the farm in a small town and doing a lot more manual stuff. I also feel like there’s a huge rural urban divide, especially in a city like New York. People here sometimes look at those from the country side as ignorant. I take that a little bit personally because I’m from a community like that.”

Seeing the silver lining of struggle

Helping his parents by working on the family farm at a young age and taking charge of his life after high school was certainly not the type of life many of his SIPA peers experienced. However, Verburg acknowledges there is benefit in the difficulties he’s experienced. “I think if you are accustomed to struggle, then if something goes wrong in your plans, you know you have faced stuff that was a lot worse, and you can deal with it somehow; it is possible to overcome.” Struggle, he says, “gives you the ability to see the problem from inside” and “makes you more capable to address it.” It certainly changed “the way I look at problems and define solutions.” What he likes about SIPA is that the school has given him the tools “to really see whether our ideas will have some impact.”

We’re all in this together

The Ivy League environment has been less intimidating than Verburg expected. “Academically when I first came into SIPA, I thought people were much more well-prepared and have more experience. But the more you take classes together you realize you’re all learning together, starting at the same level. I came into this sphere without any connections, when some of my peers already had jobs at the world bank, or UN organization, or government ministry.”

Regardless of our different backgrounds, experiences, or previous connections, what makes SIPA students mix well is that, at the end of the day, we are all people who share common values. “I say that people are more similar than different when you generalize across countries. They have similar aspirations, psychosocial and physiological needs.”