When David LoBiondo came to Rutgers, he never expected to start his day watering plants and feeding the half-dozen chickens that live outside his dorm building. But as a Helyar House resident, LoBiondo, along with 39 other undergraduate students, had the opportunity to live and work together on the G.H. Cook campus at Rutgers-New Brunswick.

LoBiondo, a biological sciences major with a minor in agriculture and Food Systems in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, originally applied to Helyar for his first year, but applications were suspended during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. When applications reopened in time for his sophomore year, he jumped on the opportunity. 

Helyar House is a unique living-learning community where members have a greater responsibility for self-government than in traditional residence halls. In a supportive living environment, each house member works together on daily house chores including cooking, cleaning and, if they are involved in the Helyar ag program, caring for the plants and associated animals to achieve common cooperative living goals. The cooperative nature of Helyar House provides residents with a foundation to achieve a high level of self-reliance, as well as interpersonal, conflict resolution and leadership skills.

“We don't have any janitorial services or anything like that. So, nobody cleans the house for us. It's all the students. We set up cooking and cleaning crews during the week and we also buy our own groceries,” said LoBiondo. “We actually all sit down and have dinner like a big family most nights.”

During his sophomore year, LoBiondo became an apprentice under the agricultural manager of Helyar at the time, Owen Donnelly. Through this experience, he learned more intricately about the care involved in the plants and chickens that also call Helyar home. Wanting to be more involved, LoBiondo ran in the election to be the agricultural manager the following year when the current one graduated, which he was able to achieve. 

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“I taught the agriculture class here at Helyar. I developed the curriculum, graded the assignments and supervised the students as they took care of the six chickens that we have. The students feed them and give them water every morning and every night and make sure to let them out in the morning and in at night,” LoBiondo said. 

LoBiondo’s responsibilities included checking for eggs in the morning, checking the coop to make sure there was no damage from potential predators and ensure the coop was meeting the IACUC standards for a coop of its size. He also would check the leaves and soil of the plants to ensure they were adequately hydrated as well as in good health. 

“We also have something called the value-added crew, where they make blankets and wreaths around the holidays. We do soap making toward the spring. We have our Helyar Fresh program where we try to use fresh ingredients and bake things – whether it's a simple salad recipe or cheesecake or something like that. The program really tries to focus on using fresh produce.”

When it came to where he wanted to pursue his undergraduate studies, LoBiondo always knew it would be Rutgers. Now as he plans to pursue a graduate degree in animal science, he can’t see himself going anywhere else. He has chosen to pursue a master's degree at Rutgers-New Brunswick in the endocrinology and animal biosciences program.

“My aunt and uncle both went here and were animal science majors living on Cook campus. My aunt was always participating in Rutgers Day, so my dad and the whole family would come every year and I remember growing up hearing these stories and wanting that experience. Then my brother went to Rutgers Law School in Camden and had such a great experience; so in my mind, Rutgers was just the standard,” LoBiondo shared. “I didn’t apply to many other schools because Rutgers was my dream school. Being able to continue in the family tradition and pursue a degree where they did decades ago really made me feel more connected to my family.” 

His path, however, shifted after an experience he was afforded through a student club.

“I was originally a pre-med major. I was inspired by my uncle, who is a podiatrist and was on track to complete a biology degree,” LoBiondo said. “Then I joined the Society of Animal Science, where we learned a lot about animal judging, characteristics and breeds, where we went on to a national competition to compete on behalf of Rutgers. I just remember looking around there and really loving it. It just really sparked my interest and I think that's where I decided that I wanted to get more into animal science.”

A Blairstown, N.J., native, LoBiondo also credits his proximity to nature for his passion.

“I lived really close to the Delaware Water Gap, so I would go hiking all the time since the Appalachian Mountains are right there. I grew up next to a dairy farm. Being from where I come from, agriculture is very near and dear to my heart. I always had an appreciation for farmers and what they do,” said LoBiondo.