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Finding yourself in a sea of green

“At times I feel the hugeness of the university and its way of life closes down on me and I wonder who I am and where I am going.”

Spartan Helmet

“At times I feel the hugeness of the university and its way of life closes down on me and I wonder who I am and where I am going.”

A student contributed that pensive line to the 1969 MSU Yearbook. It could have been from the journal of Stephen DeBoer (’71, ’73, CANR) who as a sophomore that year, like many sophomores in any year, was floundering. As the first in his family to attend college, paying for school through a combination of scholarships and work, and indeed, unsure of who he was or where he was going, he considered “packing it up and leaving.”

Then, as often happens, one person took an interest in him. Professor Fred Bakker-Arkema in Agricultural Engineering suggested that Stephen was well suited for a student position in the department. A whole new world opened up. Suddenly, instead of one person in a sea of thousands, Stephen was connected with fellow students and the faculty in a small department. And the computer simulations that Dr. Bakker-Arkema involved him in, turned out to be his calling. “I started working on things that were breakthrough technology,” Stephen recalled. “I found my niche and my studies became much more relevant. But without that group in Ag. Engineering, I never would have finished school and went on to the career I’ve had.”

Recently, Stephen, together with his wife Pamela, decided it was the right time to give back to the department that had changed the course of his life, creating the DeBoer Family Scholarship/Fellowship fund and at the same time joining the Jonathan L. Snyder donor society. This endowment will allow the department to identify and offer the same opportunities that existed for Stephen when he was a student. “I never envisioned myself where I am now,” Stephen said. “But MSU opened a lot of doors for me. I feel very blessed in that and I am blessed to have the opportunity to give back.”

After completing both his B.A. and master’s degrees, and starting a doctorate at MSU, Stephen left for an assignment at the W.K. Kellogg Company. He never came back to complete the doctorate, but he never had cause for regret on the matter. He enjoyed a fulfilling career at Kellogg, first in food technology, later engineering and then as vice president of Research and Development. “I loved my work so much,” he said. “Anytime I started to get a little bit bored, something new came up.”

He had been the very first agricultural engineer the company had ever hired. But, by the time he retired in 2004, there were 60 such specialists, many of them fellow Spartans whom Stephen himself had hired. He ended his long tenure there as the vice president of Operations. He credits his successful career to what he learned at MSU.

“The important thing I walked away from my MSU education with was not a lot of technical knowledge, but a logical way to approach problems and solve them,” he said.

Over the years, Stephen has stayed in touch with his former mentor, Dr. Bakker-Arkema, and has served on MSU advisory boards. He makes a point to return to campus at least once a year to enjoy the campus beauty and reflect on the place that left such an impression on the shape of his life.