Dr. Duffy: Finding a Passion in Africa

Growing up in the late ‘60s in a small, blue collar, rural farm community in Massachusetts, Dr. Patricia Duffy would wake up early on the weekends and during school breaks to watch the farm shows on TV in the mornings.

As she was learning about garden mulching and corn prices, commercials for the Peace Corps, advertising “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” sparked her interest in one day joining this new program called the Peace Corps.

Peace Corps logo. Photo Credit: Peace Corps
Peace Corps logo. Photo Credit: Peace Corps

After graduating from high school, Duffy attended Boston College and graduated with degrees in English and French literature and then joined the Peace Corps.

She became a member of a new Peace Corps program that took people with foreign language skills to Michigan State University for intensive training in agriculture.

“They were having a hard time getting people in agriculture that wanted to join the Peace Corps and who could speak foreign languages,” said Duffy.

At Michigan State, she studied entomology, soil science and animal science for a summer before she was given her Peace Corps assignment.

Map of Zaire. Photo Credit:


After her training, Duffy was sent to Zaire, the area that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.

When she arrived in Zaire, she was taught tropical agriculture practices and later began teaching at a vocational agricultural high school.

While living in Zaire, Duffy was introduced to agricultural economics and discovered that she liked teaching.

“Not everyone could go to high school in Zaire and to get that far they had to be really, really smart and they were disadvantaged in terms of background and what they had for books and money, but they were very intelligent,” said Duffy. “Everyone’s IQ was probably 140 or more and that was my first teaching job.”

When she came back to the United States Duffy knew that she was going to go to graduate school.

She began writing to graduate schools, trying to convince them to accept her into their agricultural economics graduate programs even though she had never had an economics or business course in her life.

“I wrote these letters to these graduate program officers at all these major universities, trying to convince them that not only did they needed me as a graduate student, but that they also needed to pay my way,” said Duffy.

The letters worked. Michigan State University, University of Hawaii and Texas A & M accepted her into their graduate programs.

She decided on Texas A & M, not only because of the quality of the program but also because of the weather.

“I had spent two years in the tropics and I liked it,” said Duffy. “I liked not being cold.”

She fell in love with economics in Texas and after finishing her master’s degree, she went right on into the PhD program in agricultural economics.

James Richardson, her major professor at Texas A &M, gave her the best advice while she was getting her PhD.

“If you want to have a conflict with anybody when you’re at work make sure it’s not the staff. You always be nice to the staff.”

After graduating from Texas A & M in 1985 she knew she wanted to teach but academic jobs in agricultural economics was scarce, especially for married couples in the same field.

Duffy and her husband, Dr. Jim Novak, another agriculture economist, both began searching for academic jobs in the same town.

In 1985, Duffy and her husband both accepted jobs at Auburn University in the College of Agriculture’s department of agricultural economics and rural sociology.

“We were lucky,” said Duffy. “The year I finished up was one of the best hiring years, ever, for agriculture economists. So it was possible, barely, to get two jobs in the same city, so we came here.”

Her time at Auburn has not been uneventful.

Since she began teaching at Auburn she got another master’s degree in arts and English literature and is currently getting a master’s degree in statistics.

Comer Hall, houses the department of agricultural economics and rural sociology at Auburn University. Photo Credit.

She was the assistant provost to undergraduate studies, where she helped develop the interdisciplinary studies major.

“I like doing interdisciplinary work,” said Duffy. “I think it can be more useful than straight disciplinary work. It’s got a broader audience.”

She also collaborated with a fellow colleague in nutrition to work on food policy 10 years after she came to Auburn.

This combined social science and nutrition to look at the impact of government food assistance.

Working in the office of the provost did come with its challenges. Having to deal with parents was the biggest.

Parents would call her office to question why their child failed a class and could not understand why Duffy would not give them detailed information into their child’s academic career.

Even though she longed to correct the parent’s misinformation their child had given them, the university’s privacy policy prevented her from speaking her mind.

Her time at the office of the provost was short-lived and after three years Duffy went back to the department of agricultural economics.

“I like teaching and advising the best,” said Duffy.

Even once she retires Duffy said she wouldn’t stop working.

She would look at continuing to teach economics at other local colleges and universities.

It isn’t hard to get her to come into work every day.

“I mostly like what I’m doing,” said Duffy. “I like the mix of having teaching and research.”

Since coming to Auburn Duffy has taught principles of agribusiness management, farm management, appraisal, microeconomics, agriculture policy and trade and agribusiness marketing, just at the undergraduate level.

She has also taught econometrics, operations research and farm management at the graduate level.

She loves economics and would love to go back and teach microeconomics again, but her busy schedule hasn’t allowed her to.

Duffy continues to be a favorite teacher of students in the College of Agriculture.

Lauren Cline, academic advisor for the College of Agriculture, first meet Duffy as an agricultural economics student in 2007.

“She was an extremely intelligent woman,” said Cline. “She had a lot of confidence, she knew what she knew and she really enjoyed students.”

Kate Johnson, extension agent in Appanoose County, Iowa, and recent agricultural communications graduate, recalls her first encounter with Duffy.

“I remember thinking that she was extremely monotone and that she was going to make a difficult and boring subject even more boring but Dr. Duffy tries hard to make the material interesting.”

Duffy is a favorite with students because she is approachable. She is available to students, even at the last minute before an exam.

“She didn’t make me feel like anything was a stupid question,” said Johnson.

Johnson describes Duffy the best, “Different and definitely her own character.”

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