A love and agricultural connection that began at Fort Valley State University 15 years ago continues to flourish as married couple William and Allison Harden sow seeds of success for others to grow.
The 34-year-old college sweethearts have accomplished many of the goals they set as young students. Ten years both working for the Department of Homeland Security is a career milestone, but their inner achievement comes from giving back to people.
“What makes us feel like we will ultimately be successful when we retire is when we look back at all of the people we have helped. That means we not only did well ourselves and achieved our goals, but we also helped others achieve theirs because we made an impact in other people’s lives,” Allison said.
The couple’s paths first crossed on FVSU’s campus. Following in the footsteps of their parents and several family members, William, a Perry native, and Allison, a Fort Valley native, both became Wildcats in 2002 after graduating high school.
Interested in agriculture, Allison viewed it as more than farming, but rather a career opportunity. “If we don’t continue to increase awareness, people will not understand and appreciate what it is,” she said.
Initially a biology major, William said Allison convinced him to change his major to agriculture. “It’s more hands on and you can relate it to real-life scenarios,” he said.
In addition, the friendly atmosphere at FVSU made it more than just a college to William. “It felt more like home,” he said. “People cared about your education and making sure that you were going to be successful because you represented them.”
Months after graduating in spring 2007 as plant science majors with a concentration in biotechnology, the couple began their careers as agriculture specialists with the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
“We were actually able to use our major and be gainfully employed less than six months out of school,” William said.
Allison said working for Homeland Security is a rewarding career, which involves protecting American agriculture from harmful exotic plant pests, foreign animal diseases and potential agriculture and bio-terrorism into the United States. In May 2017, she received a promotion as a supervisory human resources mission support specialist after working in mission support for five years.
In addition to protecting agriculture, they have met several celebrities and heads of states.
“You just don’t know from day to day who is going to fly in. That side of it is exciting,” Allison said.
She credits FVSU for preparing them for the real world. Their studies spanned from learning about medicinal fruits to help treat cancers and different ailments, to learning how to work with the basics and not rely solely on technology when doing research.
“That was priceless. Now I feel like there is nothing that I cannot overcome,” Allison said, noting biotechnology was an emerging major at FVSU during that time but has since grown.
As their mentor, Dr. Sarwan Dhir, a FVSU professor of plant biotechnology, said William and Allison participated in a research internship at the National Science Foundation REU-Site program at the University of Georgia in 2005 and Fordham University in New York in 2006.
Also, Minority Access Inc. honored William and Allison with the National Role Model Award in 2006 because of their outstanding academic record and scholarly accomplishments.
“As proud FVSU alumni, both Allison and William continue to give back to their alma mater by recruiting academically talented students for the plant science-biotechnology program at FVSU, as well as for the Customs and Border Patrol Agency. I am very proud of their accomplishments and wish for their continued success,” Dhir said.
William said to know FVSU helped him and his family, he hopes to say the same for his eldest son in 12 years.
“I do not want this tradition to be lost,” he said. “That’s why we push so hard to make sure that we’re at the top of our game doing what we need to do with our jobs so that more students will have the opportunity to go out and be gainfully employed.”
Allison said helping others gives them joy. “You have to plant these seeds so HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) will continue to flourish. We are the ones who have to put that time and effort in.”
For them, putting that effort in means making a difference in students’ lives so they can be the next leaders of tomorrow. “If you have a dream or goal, keep going. Sometimes people just need someone to believe in them,” Allison said. “Both of us truly believe that God puts you in places for a reason.”