Janelle Larson Profile

Janelle Larson (Kansas and Worcester 1990) is the Head of the Division of Engineering, Business and Computing, as well as an Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics, at Pennsylvania State University. Janelle is also a co-founder of the Zawadi Fund International, which collaborates with the Children and Youth Empowerment Center in Nyeri, Kenya to help develop effective and sustainable solutions for street children. She holds a DPhil and MSc in Agricultural Economics from the University of Oxford, and a BA in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences and a BSc in Animal Sciences and Industry from Kansas State University.

Rhodes Project: What is your favorite thing to do in Philadelphia?

Janelle Larson: I have three kids, so my favorite thing to do is kind of irrelevant at this point in my life. I mostly do things focused on children’s activities. That would have to be going to the Franklin Institute. It’s a very good science museum.

Rhodes Project: What is one of your favorite childhood memories?

Janelle Larson: I grew up on a farm in Kansas. One of my favorite childhood memories is catching frogs for the county fair. I always seemed to do quite well with my speedy frogs.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read for pleasure?

Janelle Larson: Again, I’m at this point in life where I read books with my children. I read Ender’s Game with my seventh grader, which I did enjoy. I read The Tiger Rising with my third grader.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about Agricultural Economics?

Janelle Larson: Like I said, I grew up on a farm in Kansas. My main work is in International Development. I had originally intended to go to veterinary school. I was always interested in international affairs and international development, and when I was in college I decided I was more interested in the economics and policy aspect than the technical side of development work. So that’s when I shifted from livestock production to economics and policy. It was while I was an undergraduate that I developed the interest in economics specifically.

Rhodes Project: What do you like most about being a professor?

Janelle Larson: I am a professor, but I’m also doing administrative work. I’m a division head and am working on a project that sort of builds on Oxford and Rhodes connections. It’s partly work and partly personal. I’m at Penn State and I’m in agricultural economics. Through that avenue, I’m able to partner with a Kenyan Rhodes Scholar who was a year ahead of me at Oxford. He created a program for street children in Kenya. So I’m able to partner with him and work with undergraduate students to help develop programming in youth development, agricultural production and business development for that center in Kenya. That’s my favorite part of my job. It is something that has developed on the side of my job, so it’s not something Penn State pays me to do, but it’s what I enjoy most. There’s a third person involved with the project from Kansas State who is also a Rhodes Scholar. It was over twenty years ago that the three of us met and became friends, and now we are still able to work together.

Rhodes Project:  What is the most challenging part of your job?

Janelle Larson: The most challenging part of my job would probably be as an administrator. As a department head, I’m responsible for personnel issues and faculty and staff evaluations. Sometimes it’s very rewarding because it’s easy and positive. People are doing very good, interesting work and I can support them. But sometimes it can be challenging when I have to provide negative or corrective feedback. I’ve occasionally had to let people go. So that’s been the most difficult part of the job.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman about to start a new career?  

Janelle Larson: I would say to follow your passion and to make sure you are really being true to yourself. Of course there are times you have to make compromises for practical reasons or to accommodate a spouse or family. At the same time, you should make sure you are in a field that you are passionate about. That is where you are going to spend many hours of your life. It has to be something that you love doing. It can be hard to do. There are trade-offs and you might not be able to do it with every job opportunity, but I think in the long-term, it’s important to have that focus.

Rhodes Project: Can you describe an event that stood out to you while you were in Honduras?

Janelle Larson: I lived there while I was doing research for my dissertation. What was most significant was the way I was able to connect with the people that I worked and lived with there. Just through chance and luck, I was able to connect with a family that had a daughter and a granddaughter close to my age that I lived with. Through that, I was able to integrate into the community and get to know the local perspectives more than if I had just been working professionally with people. I was able to live with and work at a more personal basis with individuals. 

Rhodes Project: What is one of your hobbies and what do you like about it?

Janelle Larson: I often do books on tape, which is now books on CD. I commute about an hour on a regular basis and sometimes three hours if I’m going to the main campus of Penn State. That’s really the main reason why I am able to keep up on any sort of “reading”.  As a working mom economist, I’m able to get the most out of my time by maximizing my hour commute and reading while I drive. 

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