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Fall 2019

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Chicago high school student Paige Smylie reaches into the rumen of a cannulated dairy cow at the Dairy Cattle Center during the CALS Agricultural Experience weekend. Photo by Michael P. King

From the Dairy Cattle Center to the Multicultural Student Center, from DNA to proteins to flavor perception. These were among the wide-ranging locales and topics offered to more than 30 Chicago and Milwaukee-area high school students who participated in the inaugural 2019 CALS Agricultural Experience, an immersive visit to the college and greater UW–Madison campus. The program, held April 11-13, was made possible in large part by a generous donation from Chicago real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom BS’65.

Higginbottom, an NCAA all-American track and field athlete, earned his degree in agricultural and applied economics and took his business acumen to the Windy City, first at the firm of Baird & Warner before starting his own — East Lake Management & Development Co. — in 1975.

“Having worked with groups like After School Matters in Chicago, I believe that exposure to the extraordinary opportunities available in programs like CALS will motivate high school freshmen and sophomores to work hard and achieve,” he says.

Kalyanna Williams MS’17, a dairy science faculty associate who helped coordinate the program, knows just how quickly a student can be captivated by something new. During an internship at Iowa State University, Williams was temporarily assigned to a dairy project. It was her first experience with dairy animals, but it inspired her to go to graduate school and ultimately teach in the field.

“When I think about that, I think about these students,” she says. “It just takes that one opportunity, that one exposure for these student to say, ‘I wonder what I can do?'”

The students — hailing from Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, Milwaukee Vincent High School, and the After School Matters and Chicago Scholars after-school programs — participated in a variety of hands-on workshops. They explored the rumen of a cannulated dairy cow at the Dairy Cattle Center, tested zucchini plants for an aphid-borne virus at D.C. Smith Greenhouse, learned about flavor perception at Babcock Hall (and got an obligatory taste of ice cream), and viewed three-dimensional models of proteins at the Microbial Sciences Building.

To Higginbottom, inclusion for students of color is a critical component of college success. “As a minority student, that’s one of the things that you’re concerned about,” he says. “We overcome the economic considerations. We overcome the academic considerations. But the consideration of feeling included is very important.”

Thomas Browne, CALS senior assistant dean for academic affairs, agrees. He notes that the program’s unstructured time at the Multicultural Student Center, Black Cultural Center, and The Sett at Union South is valuable and necessary.

“We really wanted participants to have interactions with our current students that they could related to here, so they could see people from similar backgrounds actually doing what we hope that they would do, and show them it’s not impossible,” he says. “A lot of us have the privilege to do college visits before we apply — a lot of these students don’t. It makes it real. The possibility of it. Anyone who gets to step on this campus, or any other campus, is getting a leg up on most of the people that they grew up with.”

The 2019 CALS Agricultural Experience was also made possible with funding from the Morgridge Center for Public Service’s Wisconsin Idea Fellowship program and the Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association, as well as assistance from Abagail Catania BS’19 through the UW–Madison chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences. And thanks to Higginbottom’s gift, the program will continue in the 2019–20 school year, giving dozens more students “a leg up” on success.

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