Teaching Them To Fish
Karen Veverica personifies that Chinese proverb about teaching a man to fish versus just giving him a fish. For roughly half of her 36-year career in aquaculture, the Auburn University Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures employee and mother of two has lived and worked in Africa, training men and women in economically developing countries there not simply to fish but to fish farm, and thus, as the ancient adage concludes, feeding them for a lifetime.
For Veverica, who joined the fisheries department at Auburn in 1981 and in January was named interim director of Auburn’s E.W. Shell Fisheries Center, aquaculture in general and international aquaculture development in particular appears to have been written in the stars. A native of the “Great Lakes State” of Michigan, Veverica says it was obvious from an early age that water was most definitely her element.
“I’ve always been drawn to water,” she says. “One birthday, my brother gave me some diving equipment, and I would sit for hours at the bottom of the lake, fascinated.” In her younger years, she dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, but then she discovered aquaculture.
“Aquaculture started getting a lot of attention in the 1970s, and I realized that here was a field that would allow me to work around water and use my knowledge to produce food and make a difference in the world, and I said, ‘Oh yeah; there you go; that’s what I’ll do,’” Veverica says.
In 1976, fresh out of Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences—“MSU’s fisheries degree was mostly fisheries management, and since I couldn’t afford to go out of state, biological sciences made the most sense,” she says—Veverica joined the Peace Corps, where a strong background in water chemistry and years of high-school and college French classes landed her the assignment she had hoped for, as a fish farming volunteer in Cameroon. With that placement, Veverica and two fellow female volunteers made Peace Corps history as the first women ever to have been placed in fish farming positions.
“For some reason, the Peace Corps had always considered fish farming a man’s job,” Veverica says. “They just happened to decide with us to experiment, to test us to see if women could handle the conditions and the labor involved.
“Before we had finished our two years, they had brought in another group of women.”
It was in Cameroon that she became aware of Auburn University’s fisheries program and, in particular, of faculty member Claude Boyd.
“My Peace Corps trainer was an Auburn fisheries grad, and he let me use his old college class notes to learn all I could about water quality for aquaculture,” she says. “They were his notes from Dr. Boyd’s class. So even though I’ve never officially taken one of Dr. Boyd’s courses, a lot of what I know I learned from him.”
When her overseas stint ended, Veverica returned to the States and worked with the Peace Corps for a short time as a trainer of new fish-farming volunteers, then in 1980 enrolled at Oregon State University to pursue a master’s in aquaculture. She was completing that degree and working at OSU’s marine science center when Auburn advertised an opening for an aquaculture technician at the fisheries research station.
“The day that announcement came out, three people put it in my mailbox, saying I fit the job description perfectly,” Veverica says. “All my professors were urging me to apply, too. Auburn was ‘The Place’ for warm-water aquaculture, and for them, to have a student of theirs get a job at Auburn was wonderful.”
At Auburn, she was responsible for helping manage the fisheries research ponds and facilities, but she had been in that role less than two years when Auburn was awarded a five-year U.S. Agency for International Development fish culture project in Rwanda, and she was tapped to be chief of party and training specialist of that mission for two years.
Two years turned into 10, and when she returned to Auburn and her job at the research ponds in 1993, she was accompanied by Roelof Sikkens, a Netherlands native whom she had met and, in 1988, married in Rwanda, where he was working for Cornell University as a drainage systems engineer. The couple’s son, Andrew, was born in ’93 and, a year later, daughter Diane.
From the get-go, Sikkens handled most of the child-rearing responsibilities—“he knew how much I loved my work,” Veverica says—and also took the lead in managing a commercial fishing operation in north Alabama that the couple had purchased as a side venture in 1995.
But neither motherhood nor entrepreneurship diminished Veverica’s passion for sharing her knowledge of sustainable fish culture with the developing world. In 1997, when the fisheries department offered Veverica a role in a collaborative international sustainable aquaculture project administered by Oregon State in Kenya, she and Sikkens packed up the little ones, ages 3 and 2, and went. In addition to conducting fish farming research and training, Veverica supervised construction of more than 70 ponds, water-quality labs and hatchery facilities. Andrew and Diane, meanwhile, started preschool and then school in Kenyan classrooms.
“We didn’t shelter them; we totally immersed them in the culture there,” Veverica says. “They didn’t know you get gifts at Christmas till we came back to Auburn” in 2000.
Five years later, another out-of-country opportunity came her—and her family’s—way, this time to serve as chief of party for a three-and-a-half-year, Auburn-led, private-sector-driven initiative to jump-start commercial aquaculture in Uganda through the development of model fish farms.
“The kids were in fifth and sixth grade, and my husband was working in the agronomy department’s cotton breeding program, so there was a lot more to consider this time, but they were all OK with the idea of going,” Veverica says, noting that Sikkens did travel back and forth to Auburn during that time to maintain his job with agronomy. And the children attended an international school instead of one in the Ugandan system.
Since completing the Uganda venture and returning to the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture, Veverica has traveled to several African nations for short-term projects and consulting work, but the family as a whole has stayed put. Andrew’s now a sophomore aerospace engineering major at Auburn; Diane just graduated from Auburn High School and will enroll in Vermont’s Bennington College this fall to study psychology and, interestingly, international development.
Veverica admits that balancing motherhood with an intense professional commitment brought its share of guilt trips through the years, but she says the international experiences have been a “huge advantage” to the family.
“My husband’s from the Netherlands, and we’ve all lived in Africa and traveled in Africa, Europe and Asia,” she says. “We both agreed our children should feel as if they are citizens of the world.”