From family farm to family gift

August 2021
Alton McEwen (front row, centre) and familyAlton McEwen (front row, centre) and family
| Andrew Mahon

As a Macdonald College student, Alton McEwen, BScAgr’66, had plenty of opportunities for experiential education during the summer months, working seven days a week on the family dairy farm in the Chateauguay Valley.

“That’s kind of what my internship was,” says McEwen. “Of course, they didn’t call them internships back then.”

They do call them internships today and, thanks to a generous gift from McEwen, they will continue to play an essential part in the education experience at the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (AES). McEwen’s donation of $625,000 will support the operations of the Faculty’s Internship Office, its internship awards and programs which are critical to enabling experiential learning opportunities at AES. In recognition of his generous support, these learning opportunities are named after Alton, his late wife Dianne (also a McGill graduate) and his family, and are now known as the Alton and Dianne McEwen and Family Internship Office and Programs.

“During my time in various businesses, I’ve become very familiar with internships and their value,” says McEwen. “For Mac students, internships are particularly important because of the kinds of studies they are doing and the real-world connection between their education in terms of the environment, agriculture, or other areas, and the kind of work they will be eventually doing.”

Since its inception in 2009, the Faculty’s internship program has provided formal internships for some 518 students. Internships offer myriad possibilities and can take the form of experience in diverse areas including organic farming, safe water management, conservation biology, solar greenhouse technology and much, much more. In addition, student placements can result in assignments at companies and organizations not just in Canada, but around the world.

McEwen stresses that agricultural and environmental sciences are a diverse and global field. Students may not have had the chance to be exposed to the opportunities and companies involved in these areas so internships are hugely useful.

Thanks to support from the internship office, AES student Annie‐Claire Daviault completed a summer internship at Fromagerie Au Gré des Champs, a dairy farm where the milk is used to make artisanal cheese on site.

“This amazing internship allowed me to learn a great deal about the dairy industry, but also gave me first‐hand experience of the reality of dairy producers in Quebec,” says Daviault. “Because of this internship, I will focus the rest of my studies on organic production and improving animal well-being, without affecting the profitability of production. I believe that, as a future agronomist, to have experienced farm work first-hand is essential to understanding the producer’s struggles and to excel as an expert advisor.”

McEwen’s strong support for the Faculty can be traced back to his own experience as a Macdonald College student in the Class of ’66. He credits Mac for excellent teachers, supportive classmates and a solid foundation in food sciences and management – the prelude to a successful career in the food and beverage industry starting at Ogilvie Flour Mills in Montreal as a product development technician and culminating in a series of leadership roles in the confectionary and specialty coffee industries.

McEwen’s support also emanates from his strong family ties to the University, as six of his family members (including his late wife) graduated from McGill. Family involvement remains important to this day as McEwen’s children are very supportive and happy to see their family’s name associated with McGill, and to see their late mother’s name honoured by the gift.

Since graduating, McEwen has remained a steadfast supporter of the Faculty, including gifts to a refurbished playing field and a joint commitment in 2015 with his brother, Murray McEwen (BScAgr’53, DSc’93), of $500,000 to establish the Alton and Murray McEwen Visitor Hub at the Macdonald Farm Community Engagement Centre. In addition, Alton has also contributed to his class endowment of the Macdonald Class of 1966 Internship Award, which is part of the internship program. The Class of ’66 is celebrating their 55th anniversary this year and McEwen’s ongoing contact with a number of his classmates is another part of his enduring connection to McGill.

“The Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is so fortunate to count on the generosity of alumni like Alton to provide our students with an educational experience that not only helps them become career ready, but also future ready,” says Dean Anja Geitmann.

McEwen says he wants to encourage students to take advantage of the program and the valuable real-world experience it offers, which he hopes will help lead to permanent employment and serve as a springboard for successful careers post-graduation.“The Faculty offers an opportunity for students to make a difference in the world,” he says. “Feeding people and looking after people is something that you’re always close to when you’re in the food, agriculture and environmental sciences world, and there’s a real need for those skills. McGill prepares students well for this. I am happy to be involved and do my small part for future graduates.”

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