Photographed by Hillary Schave

When Michelle Obama spoke at Tuskegee University’s graduation ceremony in 2015, Kalyanna (Yanna) Williams was there in cap and gown, listening with wide eyes. “She talked about the racism and sexism she’d been through,” Williams says. “But she reminded us at the end of the day, we should always give back to our community. That solidified it for me.”

A non-farm girl raised on the west side of Chicago and in the suburbs of Phoenix, Williams didn’t know she’d be serving her community via a career in agriculture. But as the new Extension Dairy Youth Specialist in UW-Madison’s Department of Dairy Science, she’s striving to make Wisconsin’s flagship industry more accessible and inclusive.

With a bachelor’s degree in animal sciences from Tuskegee and a master’s degree in dairy science from UW, she’s a first-generation college student blazing the trail for others who may not fit the mold of conventional agriculture students.

Williams leads K-12 dairy outreach programs and educates youth from urban and suburban backgrounds through hands-on science. She works to recruit and retain nontraditional students at all levels, including UW’s non-degree Farm and Industry Short Course. She’s building bridges between the university and public high schools and minority serving institutions, such as her alma mater. She’ll be hosting five student interns from Tuskegee this summer.

Having served on a UW Black student association, Williams is well aware of the school’s shortcomings when it comes to inclusivity. “We all know what’s happening,” she says. “But this [dairy science] department is the best place on campus as far as I’m concerned. We’ve had a lot of conversations and brainstorming about how students of color can be comfortable here.”

Williams’ reach goes beyond campus. “As the top dairy school in the world, we’re challenging industry partners to recruit and welcome students of color,” she says. “When we have more people of different backgrounds in this industry, we’ll have unique perspectives and more innovation.”

Off campus, Williams spearheaded a Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) college fair at East High School in Madison and is now planning a statewide fair to bring more than 40 HBCUs and more than 500 students to Madison from across the state.

Williams adds, “I love this work that allows me to merge community service with my dairy degree. My students laugh at me when they ask me how I got where I am and I say, ‘I’m milking my opportunities.’”

–Lisa Bauer

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