Agriculture has always been the focus of Molly Foley’s life. She grew up on a farm near Huxley, Iowa, and enrolled at Iowa State in the fall of 2010 with thoughts of becoming an ag communicator. But a professor’s nudge to explore additional majors during freshmen orientation led her to a classroom where Carmen Bain, professor of sociology, was discussing a major that combines agriculture with public service and administration. Foley was all in. In 2014, she graduated from Iowa State with a bachelor’s degree in both ag communications and public service and administration (PSA).
From PSA to agriculture and society
Today, the PSA major is called agriculture and society. It’s an interdisciplinary major in the Colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Agriculture and Life Sciences. That makes perfect sense since students in this major, like Foley, want to impact society through agriculture.
“Someone described the major to me as a trifecta of political science, economics and sociology with an overarching agricultural focus,” Foley said.
Foley didn’t see herself as a politician, but the idea of improving agriculture and society through policy changes was appealing.
“I never had aspirations to get into politics, but the idea of creating policy to help make the world a better place is really important,” Foley said. “I felt coming at this degree from an ag background was unique. To see sociology, political science and economics through an ag lens was second to none.”
Internships were key
The summer between her junior and senior years at Iowa State, Foley participated in two internships. The first was with the Global Agriculture and Food Leadership Program in Rome, Italy. For six weeks, Foley worked for a United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and other international agriculture and food organizations on various real-world projects.
“That was my first insight into international agriculture, and that helped me understand that there’s more to ag than just domestic production,” she said.
Later that summer, Foley returned to the United States and interned for U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley in Washington, D.C., which solidified her passion for public administration. After graduating from Iowa State in 2014, Foley returned to D.C. and attended graduate school at George Washington University to study public administration.
She also needed to make financial ends meet, so when a full-time position in Grassley’s office opened up, she jumped at the opportunity and was offered the job. Initially, Foley was the senator’s staff assistant and then moved to a legislative role focusing on agriculture, trade and the environment, eventually becoming his deputy scheduler. All the while, she attended graduate classes several nights each week.
After two years of burning the candle at both ends, Foley earned a master’s degree in public administration in 2016. She continued with Grassley’s office for another year and held one other position before moving into her current role as director of intergovernmental affairs and public engagement in the Office of the United States Trade Representative, part of the Executive Office of the President.
“Our big job is to negotiate and implement trade agreements for the United States,” she said. “Our office is the front line for anyone who may be interested in what’s happening with trade policy.”
While Foley never imagined her career path would lead her to the trade industry, she enjoys being in a position to help shape the future of agriculture. Her work expands market access for U.S. ag producers, helping them get their products into new, untapped markets and countries.
“I’m always asking myself, ‘How can we make things better?’” she said.
A major that makes a difference
When Foley came to Iowa State in 2010, she wanted to impact the world beyond herself. The PSA major—now agriculture and society—was the foundation she needed to make that happen.
“Ag brought me up, ag was my background and I wanted to find a way to help improve the industry as a whole,” Foley said. “Agriculture and society seemed to be the way of taking my passion for public service and making the world better within the government space. That major was an opportunity to keep my foundation in agriculture, but spread it much wider.”