Brandon Gross, a 25-year-old agriculture teacher, spent much of his early twenties working labor-intensive jobs that he liked, but had dreams of much more.
“I worked on an assembly line for a short period of time as a welder. Ten-hour shifts, five days a week. I would walk out and I would be covered in black soot with my eyes burning,” Gross said about one of his jobs that led him to seek more.
Those days on the assembly line coupled with his employment as a maintenance worker and a bookstore clerk led him to pursue a college degree. Like many of his peers, he started college at the age of 18, but he did not finish in four years.
Gross recalls his first attempt at college where he attended a small liberal arts college in Virginia. There he majored in secondary education with an emphasis in history, but it became too expensive for him to continue and he never felt comfortable.
“It just wasn’t a good fit. I felt like a square peg in a round hole,” Gross said.
Still determined to find a career, Gross decided to join the U.S. Coast Guard as a reservist.
“There I learned leadership skills, seaman skills, navigation and boat handling skills,” Gross said.
Service in the Coast Guard was beneficial, but he didn’t have the one thing he wanted, a college degree.
Soon after he finished Advanced Individual Training (AIT) for the Coast Guard, he enrolled at Valdosta State University (VSU) with the same goal of earning a degree in secondary education with an emphasis in history. However VSU eliminated the program.
Once again, Gross found himself in a place where he had to make a decision. With more time on his hands, he began to reflect on the things he loved.
“I enjoyed growing plants,” Gross said.
He said he would watch YouTube videos about agriculture and plants during his time off. It was then he decided he wanted to pursue a degree in agriculture.
Gross continued to take different jobs along his journey while enrolled in South Georgia Technical College. There he earned an associate degree in horticulture, which he says set him up perfectly for a bachelor’s degree at Fort Valley State University.
Still having to work to make financial ends meet, Gross used his associate degree to work at a botanical garden, while simultaneously earning his bachelor’s in agricultural education from FVSU. The Seville, Georgia native admits working and going to school was no easy task, but attributes his success to the encouragement of his professors.
“I came back to school with a mortgage and a part-time job,” Gross said. “It’s not the easiest thing to do, trying to balance your home life and school, but that goes back to the professors being awesome and understanding.”
While matriculating at FVSU, Gross said his experience was fulfilling. He embraced the opportunities to learn about animal science, aquaponics, agriculture research and horticulture. He also talked about the many field trips taken and the hands-on learning approach.
“You don’t realize how many different facets of agriculture are here until you take the agriculture orientation class,” Gross said.
He found all of his professors to be accessible and willing to share their knowledge.
“I like all the approachability of the professors, mostly all of them have an open door policy, you can talk to them and ask questions,” Gross said.
His determination paid off. Gross earned a scholarship and the Ira Hicks Outstanding Agricultural Education Award, an award presented to a student with a high (GPA), and active participation with the Future Farmers of America.
After earning his degree in agricultural education in the spring of 2016, Gross didn’t have to wait long for a job.
“One of the good things about my major is the job opportunity. I had the opportunity to be hired on the spot,” Gross said.
Gross, who teaches agriculture courses at Americus-Sumter County High School and South Georgia Technical College, said he’s benefited from his education at FVSU and his experiences.
“I’ve worked in a lot of different industries so I bring that to the classroom,” Gross said. He says all those experiences have made him a little more patient and understanding of today’s students.
Reflecting on his first year as a teacher, he expresses what he enjoys about it most.
“The best part of teaching is the ah-ha moment. You can look in a kid’s face and see that even though they’ve struggled, they pushed through and figured it out,” Gross said.
Jarious Greene, an 18-year-old senior in Gross’s agriculture mechanics class, said he really wasn’t interested in agriculture before taking Mr. Gross class.
“He allowed us to see that agriculture is more than just plants,” Greene said.
In addition to teaching, Gross said he also looks forward to completing other projects using the many skills he’s learned.
“I look forward to working on local scales and working with high school students and local communities and developing community gardens and small scale agriculture products. I want to bring local back to food and allow the students to have a connection to where their food comes from,” Gross said.
With his degree in hand, Gross said he now has more options than ever. He may one day consider working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He also has a desire to obtain a graduate degree.