You can’t plan your future. Casey Luke, a non-traditional college student, learned this through her participation with the Future Ready Iowa Virtual Mentoring Program. 

Today, Luke, who just turned 38 years old, has one year left to go at Iowa State University in the agronomy program. A year ago, she was completing her associate’s degree in agriculture at Southeastern Community College. After learning about the online mentoring program opportunity offered to Last Dollar Scholars like her, she signed up in March 2020 and awaited a match with a mentor. 

Two months passed. In May, Luke graduated from Southeastern Community College and set her sights on the agronomy program at Iowa State. Unfortunately, matching Luke with a mentor was no easy task.

“It’s been a challenge to find mentors in the ag sciences field,” said Jason Wiegand, the Future Ready Iowa Virtual Mentoring Program Manager.

“I was just kind of waiting for them to find someone to fill that mentor spot,” Luke said.

Wiegand, a former academic advisor at Iowa State, reached out to his network at the school and connected with a possible mentor. 

In May, Luke finally matched with Heidi Ackerman, an academic advisor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. After learning of her acceptance at ISU, the school paired her with an academic advisor who happened to be none other than Heidi Ackerman. 

While college advisors are wonderful mentors, Ackerman recognized the need for Luke to be matched with another mentor to give her the best mentoring experience possible. Ackerman recommended another professional in the ag field as a mentor. 

On June 10, 2020, Luke matched with Julie McMichael, a state compliance soil scientist at USDA-NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service). 

McMichael knows the benefits of a mentor first-hand.

“I had a mentor when I started in the field. It was great to have someone who had navigated the system already to tell me the insider tricks and tell me where to go to get help and resources,” McMichael said. 

This match was perfect for Luke, who, at the time, was “pretty dead set on being a soil scientist.”

As of April 2021, the pair have attended 46 video chat meetings and exchanged nearly 70 messages through the mentoring platform. They’ve even been able to meet in person recently. 

“I’ve gone with her the past couple of weeks to do some soil training with Boy Scouts because they’re getting their soil and water conservation badge,” Luke said. 

While an academic advisor can suggest training and events, a Future Ready Iowa mentor walks right alongside their mentee. 

“Casey has been coming to different organizations I’m a part of. I told her, ‘You can be part of these organizations, too. We don’t just have to talk about them,” McMichael said.

Luke planned to go straight into soil science. However, after her hands-on experience, classwork and various other factors, she thinks a job in the NRCS may have to wait for the future. Thankfully, she has a mentor to help figure out what to do next. After learning McMichael’s academic path, Luke decided on pursuing grad school after her undergrad degree.

“We’ve talked about class load – which classes might be good, which might not be good,” McMichael said. “I’ve tried to give her advice regarding what I did and people to talk to and different resources I come across.” 

Typically, only current Last Dollar Scholar students are eligible for in-program mentoring. However, Jason Wiegand recognized the importance of the transition from community college to a four-year university.

“Whether we are connecting students with career mentors in their first or last term of study, what’s most critical is that we get them connected in advance of that next step,” Wiegand said. “It’s in those moments of transition and uncertainty that students have the most questions and will benefit the most from added guidance.”

Luke is grateful for her mentor, especially as she transitions into a new school. 

“I don’t feel that my previous classes helped prepare me for the classes at Iowa State. Having that person to talk to that’s been through it already really helps me to regain focus and realize that it’s not as big a deal as I seem to make it out to be,” Luke said with a laugh. 

“I’ve had professors where I bring up concerns, and they kind of brush them off. But, with Julie, if I bring something up, even if she doesn’t have an answer right away, she’ll go out of her way to try and find me one,” Luke said.

Luke isn’t the only one who has benefited from the mentoring relationship. 

“It’s nice to talk to someone in the career field you’re in and know that there are people coming up who are just as eager as you were when you started,” McMichael said. 

At the end of the day, Casey Luke knows you can’t plan your future perfectly, but you can surround yourself with people who care about you and your success like Jason Wiegand and Julie McMichael.


For more information on mentoring or to learn how you can become a mentor, please visit