Jackie Kondkhorov

University of Arizona senior Jackie Kondkhorov remembers her freshman orientation as being, well, disorienting.

Kondkhorov, who is from Boston, Mass., had enrolled in the UA sight-unseen on the advice of a family friend. Her first visit to campus left her wondering what she’d gotten herself into.

“My mom and I went to orientation and there’s a million people and there were these big Wildcat mascots and they were dancing around,” Kondkhorov said. “Plus, it was June and it was super-hot. We were like, ‘Where are we?’ But it was baby steps, and everything turned out fine.”

Rather than being intimidated, Kondkhorov, a first-generation student, set out to conquer campus. She graduated in 2019 as an agriculture technology management major in the College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences, served as a CALES Ambassador, and belonged to several clubs, including the Arizona Surfers.

“I’m a very curious person,” she said. “I try to do and figure it all out for myself.”

Exploring options

Kondkhorov began her academic career with an undeclared major, something she did on purpose to be able to explore different fields. She scheduled visits with professors from numerous departments, leading her to an appointment with Quintin Molina, an associate professor in the agricultural education department. He explained the wide array of academic offerings and career paths in CALES.

“Right then and there I had this click—all right, sign me up, this is so awesome,” Kondkhorov said. “It was the combination of animal sciences and plant sciences and a little bit of the business side and it sounded like exactly what I wanted to do.”

It was another brand-new situation. Growing up in the urban Northeast, she had no agricultural background except childhood visits to farms. “Students here tell me they were in FFA or 4-H and we didn’t have that,” she said, but she’s not surprised by where she ended up.

“I feel that the biggest challenge for Jackie was learning that her lack of agriculture-related background was not a hindrance to her personal success,” Molina said. “She is an excellent example of the fact that students of diverse backgrounds can be wildly successful within our college, and that their success is not dependent upon an ag background.”

Summer in Israel

Kondkhorov spent the summer of 2018 at an internship with a precision ag startup company in Tel Aviv, Israel, called Taranis, which uses drone technology to prevent crop yield loss. She worked as an analyst, viewing images of crops to identify problems like disease, chemical injury, and insect damage.

“Technology, research, development—everything is happening in Israel,” Kondkhorov said. “There was so much to do and see.”

The professional aspect was just one part of a larger experience. She lived in Jerusalem, which required a 90-minute commute each way on two buses to get to her office. Kondkhorov had been to Israel three times visiting family before her internship, but this time was different. The daily trip into Tel Aviv took her past farm fields and gave her “time to reflect.” On weekends, she explored the country, checking out beaches, the desert, and the metropolitan areas.

“It was a jam-packed summer,” she said.

CALES Ambassador and mentor

Kondkhorov joined CALES Ambassadors because she believes it’s important to share her knowledge and experience, especially with first-generation students or any students who might need help or guidance.

The CALES Ambassador program is a competitive leadership program in the college that emphasizes professionalism, intrapersonal and organizational skills. It celebrated its 25th year in 2018-19.

“My freshman year, I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Kondkhorov. “I had to find my own way. But being here and being a CALES Ambassador, I can say, ‘I’ve been there, I can help you.’ I stay in touch with a few of the students I’ve met on tours, and we’ll go for coffee and catch up and I’ll ask how their first semester is going.”

Her main piece of advice to CALES freshmen: “You’re in the right place.”