Underrepresented students share their CALS experiences

Mikel Wright, a junior in agricultural education.“A lot of students would question or downright dismiss my knowledge just because I don’t look like them,” Wright said.

Sarah Hays

Agriculture is an area of work and an area of study that many people might associate stereotypes with. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is one college on Iowa State’s campus where this can happen.

Mikel Wright, a junior in agricultural and life sciences education, and other students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences made it clear inclusion of non-traditional students is still sometimes absent. While the administration is doing an amazing job being inclusive, Wright said, the problem seems to be rooted outside of the classroom, where professors are not present. 

Wright said a lot of students in the Midwest won’t necessarily say offensive things in a straight-forward manner, but instead will talk about other students behind their backs.

“One time, I was sitting with someone who I had really looked up to, and I was a bit naïve about people at the time,” Wright said. “There was a LGBT+ student sitting with us at the table. As soon as he got up and left, a lot of the students started making fun of the way he talked and his slurs, including the person I had looked up to so much.”

He said he sees incidents like this happen often in CALS.

“They will toss around slurs, they have tossed around slurs and I think that because I am a cis male that they don’t really care much that they say it around me because they think that I will feel the same,” Wright said.

In the agriculture industry, the traditional student is a white, cis-gender male. Today, there is more diversity than there used to be, yet non-inclusive incidents still occur with women, LGBTQIA+ students and other underrepresented groups.

Alexandria Wilson, senior in global resource systems, had a specific example of what she called “misogynistic behavior.”

“Here’s the beef in my beef class,” Wilson said. “Our lecturer, who was a guest speaker with the [Iowa Cattlemen’s Association], told us that separating a cow from a herd is just like separating a ‘pretty girl from her friends.’ And after he made that ‘joke,’ all the guys in the class started laughing.”

Wilson said in the classroom, there were about five women out of the 30 students. But for Wilson this was nothing out of the ordinary. Most of her classmates are males, and most of those males are white.

While women in the agriculture industry are not as common as men, the amount of students that are not white is much less.

According to the USDA, 0.06 percent, of farm operators are black or African-American in Iowa.

“More than 99 percent of farmers in Iowa are white,” Wright said. This statistic aligns with the amount of people of color in the classroom. “I believe that I am the only person of color in the ag education program,” Wright said.

The lack of racial diversity in CALS results in some students of color feeling alone.

“You feel isolated,” Wright said. “Something that a lot of marginalized students have said that I relate to is that feeling of isolation.”

Amber Anderson, lecturer in agronomy, also said isolation is a prominent experience for non-traditional students in CALS.

“If you don’t look like everyone else, you are going to feel isolated, and feel like you don’t belong here as much,” Anderson said.

Wright said in some cases, students gravitate toward others that look like them when pairing up for groups. For some of the few students of color, this leaves them feeling excluded since most of the students are white.

“People tend to gravitate toward people they know, or students who look like them,” said Mary Wiedenhoeft, professor in agronomy.

Another issue present in CALS revolves around whether a student is from a farm. Liz Hada, senior in global resource systems, said the stereotype insisting agriculture students have a farming background is still present.

“You think of a lot of CALS students as white boys from farm backgrounds, but that’s not all of agriculture,” Hada said.

Students who appear to be more urban, and have a city-like style tend to be seen as less-knowledgeable in CALS, Wilson said.

“Basically if you don’t wear camo, if you don’t wear cowboy boots … basically if you don’t dress in a certain way you stand out,” Wilson said. 

Wright, who was in FFA for several years and very successful, said since he was from an urban background, students would expect less.

“Because I come from an urban background, a lot of students believe that I don’t have a lot of knowledge in agriculture,” Wright said. “But I know agriculture, and I was actually the first black person in Iowa to get their American Degree with FFA.”

“We need to do more encouraging toward different cultures,” said Jodi Sterle, associate professor in animal science. “We actually have some organizations that are trying to increase diversity in CALS.”

Different past experiences are often known to open up pathways to new ideas. 

“That student that comes from an urban background has a different piece of information than the student from a farm background,” Anderson said. 

Iowa State pushes for more inclusivity, and has groups, clubs and organizations for students who are underrepresented. There has been noticeable progress over the years, Wiedenhoeft said.

Groups such as Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), Leaders Enhancing Agriculture, Diversity, Inclusion and Trust Collective (LEAD-IT) and other clubs are working to improve the experiences and future careers for underrepresented CALS students.

“In the generation before me, the only professors that were female in agriculture tended to have short hair, they tended to be single,” Wiedenhoeft said. “But my generation, the second wave, we weren’t married to our research, we could have families and be feminine, and didn’t have to look male to be in agriculture.”

In animal science, Sterle said today 75 to 80 percent of the students are female.

There is substantial improvement in the diversity of CALS, and the increase in recognition of underrepresented groups is because more and more people are speaking out throughout the world, Hada said.

“A lot of these issues and racial tensions in the past have always been present, they are just a lot more vocal now and more in the public eye,” Hada said.

“If we can get past this hurdle and keep pushing for diversity in all fields then the United States can really succeed as a diverse country,” Hada said.