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Familiar face named new George Washington Carver endowed chair

Jay Waagmeester
Walter Suza in his Agronomy hall office, with his George Washington Carver poster hung next to him.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences announced Walter Suza, adjunct associate agronomy professor, as the George Washington Carver endowed chair. 

Suza, now the second to hold the position, started in this role Aug. 15, but started at Iowa State in 2011. 

When his contract was set to expire in 2013, Suza thought his job was over. 

Instead, Suza was asked to lead the plant breeding e-learning in Africa program, providing curriculum and training to universities in sub-Saharan Africa. The program worked with professors in Ghana, Uganda and South Africa to deliver a master’s in plant breeding program to students. Suza’s full time job with the plant breeding e-learning in Africa program ended in 2021, when he started teaching. 

Suza was raised in rural Tanzania and was born into agriculture. 

As a child in Tanzania, Suza said he had no interest in working in agriculture. “We didn’t have mechanization, we didn’t have fertilizer, insects are destroying the crop [and] you are manually weeding the field, working in the field,” Suza said. “I didn’t like it.”

A scholarship from the School of Agriculture at Africa University directed him to a career in agriculture, though. After, he worked for the World Food Programme in Angola and UNICEF in Zimbabwe, both United Nations agencies.

At UNICEF, he was in charge of coordinating supplemental food delivery to children.

“These are the leaders, these are the government officials and policymakers and scientists of the future,” Suza said, describing what inspired him to do that work. “Right now they need food, but they also need education.”

Education has served as a pathway for Suza, and he said he wants to open that pathway up to others, specifically by feeding kids and allowing them to keep their studies on track.

Following the pathway created by his education and work ethic to feed others has led him to hold a position named after Carver, the first black student and faculty member at Iowa State.  

“I’m not worthy of this, you know, because of the story of George Washington Carver,” Suza said of his recognition. “He is a legend. This place loves and embraces him, and it’s great. I really appreciate that.”

Suza said Carver’s determination and lack of bitterness drive him. 

“The time he was in was a hard time for him, being born a slave and everything,” Suza said. “The thing that amazes me is that did not make him bitter… He was open to embracing everyone, and so that’s the challenge for me… I feel a bit of weight—and it’s still sinking in—and it’s going to take some time to fully embrace it.”

Suza will serve as a leader and said he sees value in collaboration and gives credit to those who have helped him. 

“I’m grateful for my students, my TAs that made me better…[and] my colleagues here,” Suza said. “I’m here because of them, so I appreciate everything this place has done for me.”

Suza may be working in a different capacity than he did years ago with UNICEF, but his passion is still there for the problem he has spent his life dedicated to solving.

“I don’t want to come in and assume that I got all the answers,” Suza said. “I don’t. I want to ask help to do this hunger fighter thing that I want to do. It’s not okay that a child goes to school anywhere and they’re hungry… I’ll need help to see what can work well [and] what doesn’t work well, and that comes from working with others, especially students.”

Laura Tibbs-Cortes worked as a teaching assistant for Suza from 2018-2020.  

“He’s a fantastic professor because he really cares about the students both academically and personally,” Tibbs-Cortes said.

Tibbs-Cortes said Suza, who has served as a mentor to her, has helped her to become better.

“He can be really honest when it’s needed,” Tibbs-Cortes said. “He’s not going to falsely tell you you’re doing well on something.”

Even as a teaching assistant, Tibbs-Cortes learned from Suza. 

“I made a lesson that I thought was better than it was, and he was really honest,” Tibbs-Cortes said. “But, that helped me to improve a lot. At the same time, credit is due where credit’s due and he lets you know when you’ve done really well.” 

Suza has published work in genetics, agriculture and biotechnology and has focused on food security and plant breeding. 

At Iowa State, an endowed chair can be established with a minimum commitment of $1.5 million to $2 million, according to the Iowa State Foundation. 

The job of an endowed chair is one of the two most esteemed positions in academia. According to the foundation, “They help recruit and retain exceptional scholars by acknowledging their professional leadership and ensuring appropriate compensation.”

The position was named for Carver in 2008. Renowned for his plant research, Carver graduated from Iowa State in 1894 with his bachelor’s degree and in 1896 with his master’s degree. 

According to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, “The holder of the Carver Chair will conduct an academic program in sciences related to agronomy and the bioeconomy and is expected to teach both undergraduate and graduate courses.”

Andrew Manu, the former chair, held the position starting in 2009 and recently retired. 

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  • K

    Kate | Aug 25, 2023 at 9:13 am

    Great story for an exceptional person! 🙂