How did I end up in Rome after only being in college for 2 months? I took the right class (Water in the Global Environment) with the right teacher (Dr. Prasanta Kalita) who was hosting a conference (the First International Congress for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss), power wrote an essay, and road a wobbly rental bike to the nearest U.S. post office between a highway and a cornfield to expedite a passport. My expedition to the post office was worth the sweat and extra time because I got to see a new part of Urbana—but actually, because I was on my way to Rome.
More important than how I got to Rome was why I was going to Rome. I would be attending the First International Congress for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss put on by the ADM Institute that would bring together over 200 people from 62 countries to share their knowledge about reducing postharvest loss (PHL), the loss of agricultural product from the time of harvest to consumption. The other students and I as “PHL Scholars”, which may have implied that we knew a lot about postharvest loss when really we knew quite little, would help the ADM Institute staff run the congress while taking notes at the sessions to learn about PHL to later write a research paper.
When I first heard everything we would have to do, I was overwhelmed. I had so much to organize and did not know where I would fit in an extra research paper. Either way, in 3 weeks, we were landing in Rome at midnight our time, 7 AM their time, and we had a full day ahead of us.
The first morning we had a little time to explore and to try to take in the peculiar city of Rome, paved with inconsistent worn cobble roads, lined with different colored buildings, small European cars, and strange trees. Then after only five minutes of walking, we came to the Colosseum that only gets bigger and older the closer you get to it, took the necessary picture in front of the Colosseum, and tried our first Roman gelato on our way back to the congress.
Throughout the congress, I was continually astonished as I met and saw people from all around the world. I would meet two from Ghana, a few from Kenya, then India, and Uruguay, Bangladesh, the UK, California, and more from UIUC. Even more astonishingly, they were all there to address the issue of postharvest loss, a much more serious and complex issue than I had ever known.
During the congress, we heard from leaders and researchers from a variety of organizations and universities (USDA, FAO, UIUC, ADM, and many more!) about how PHL can be reduced to both increase the food supply and bring food security to rural farmers. Generally, the consensus was that the technology exists; we just need to get it to rural farmers, provide them with education, connect them to a reliable market, and do all of that within a regional and cultural context. Simple! ... Not that simple. Luckily, the experts were there to work out the crinkles of all of that happening at once over poster, panel, and speaker sessions split comfortably between Italian pastries at breakfast and pasta at lunch.
When I was not trying to grapple PHL, I was getting to know the other students and staff from the ADM Institute while getting everything together between sessions then at night site seeing, drawn out Italian dinners, and weird flavors of gelato. One night we weaved between streets to a restaurant and the Trevi fountain. Another we ate on a high hill overlooking the twinkling lights of Rome. We learned a little bit of Italian together and laughed trying to figure out whether the ADM Institute’s intern’s name was John or Jack.
All too soon, we began the day long journey back by plane to Detroit then to Chicago and finally by bus to UIUC. It was a long bus ride back to UIUC. Luckily, Kevin (another PHL scholar) and I had the invigorating topic of PHL to discuss.