Kaeli McCarther has always stood out among her peers. In high school, she made a name for herself diving headlong into every opportunity that was presented to her, including clubs, band, and the Future Farmers of America (FFA).
Her senior year, she outperformed 13 other students in an audition to become the Pioneer High School Class of 2012 graduation speaker. And in 2015, she was the first in her immediate family to pursue a university education.
When the Woodland native joined the Chico State College of Agriculture that year as a transfer student from Sierra College, she stood out for another reason that was unfamiliar to her.
“I was the brownest person in all of my ag classes,” said McCarther, who is half black.
While the College of Agriculture’s 2015 incoming class was the most diverse in its 62-year history, with minorities comprising half the class, less than four percent of its new freshmen and transfer students identified as black. Rather than giving in to a feeling of isolation, McCarther launched a new student organization that would celebrate diversity in agriculture and give students from all backgrounds a place to connect.
With the encouragement of her professors, McCarther and a group of fellow students created the United Students of Agriculture (USA), an affiliate of the national Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences. The club held its first meeting in December of 2015 with a standing-room-only crowd, and McCarther was elected president.
“I wanted USA to be a place for people to form connections and feel like they’re not alone,” McCarther said. “When I first got here I mistakenly thought that I was the only person in my classes who didn’t have an ag background. I now know that nothing could be further from the truth, and USA helped me to build my community at Chico State.”
In its first year, USA was named the College of Agriculture’s Club of the Year for its strategic and goal-oriented work to promote agriculture. The club meets monthly to hear guest speakers, conduct workshops, and just check in with one another. All of its activities align with the organization’s guiding pillars of career preparation, outreach, philanthropy and mentorship.
The role of connector and mentor is not new to McCarther. She always knew she wanted to work with kids, but she assumed it would be in music. It took her years to discover the career pathway of agriculture education.
“I needed a biology class my freshman year of high school so I enrolled in ag biology. I didn’t even know what ag was until the first day of school,” McCarther recalled.
As she learned more about agriculture through the FFA program at her high school, she became fascinated with the role it has played in developing modern civilizations.
“For me it comes down to an anthropological perspective. The development of agriculture has freed us as humans to set down roots in a place, rather than surviving as hunters and gatherers. The reason we exist the way we do today is because of agriculture,” she explained.
As rewarding and intriguing as she found agriculture as a subject area, McCarther still entered Sierra College with other career goals in mind. She started as a deaf studies major planning to pursue a career in teaching. She enrolled in an animal science course to fulfill her life sciences requirement and realized how much she missed agriculture.
“Two weeks into the class, I thought, ‘Crap. Now I have to change my major.’”
She earned associates degrees in natural sciences and behavioral sciences in the spring of 2015, and there was never any question that she would transfer to Chico State. She had visited on multiple occasions during high school for both band and FFA competitions, so she felt drawn to the campus.
“I was so excited to learn that there was this major called agricultural education, and that I could combine my love of teaching and of agriculture,” McCarther said. “When I met the faculty at Choose Chico, that’s when I realized I was going to love it here.”
From Professor Mollie Aschenbrenner, whose first lecture in her “Introduction to Agricultural Education” class left McCarther nearly in tears with inspiration, to her advisor Brad Dodson, whose office she visits almost daily, and USA club advisor Garrett Liles, who McCarther counts as a mentor and friend, the faculty in the College of Agriculture have continued to impress her.
“Our faculty are the best on the planet. I have always felt really supported and loved here,” she said.
In addition to her leadership in both USA and Collegiate FFA, McCarther has gained agricultural experience by attending agricultural conferences, working as a research assistant at the University Farm’s organic dairy, and enrolling in a directed work experience course at the Organic Vegetable Project (OVP), which led to a paid position as field manager.
“Working at the OVP was life-changing. I showed up in the first week and [project manager] Tina Candelo-Mize put me to work picking peppers. I had never had any prior production experience, and it gave me lots of ideas I can apply to student projects when I start teaching high school,” she said.
As she approaches graduation and prepares to enter the credential program, McCarther hopes to eventually teach agriculture in a diverse, low-income school.
“My passion has become not just agricultural literacy but also diversity within agriculture. I want to be able to find students from different backgrounds who may not be exposed to agriculture. I’m looking for the little Kaelis of the world,” she said.
The first in her immediate family to earn a bachelor’s degree, she also wants to inspire young students, starting with her own nephews, to aspire to higher education.
“I heard a statistic once that if someone in the family is educated, it lifts up the entire family. I want to set the bar high for my nephews. When things get tough, I remind myself that I’m here to show them what you can do with an education,” she said.
The one-time high school graduation speaker will add two more speaking engagements to her long list of honors in 2017. McCarther has been selected as the student reflections speaker for both the College of Agriculture commencement ceremony and the Black Graduation Celebration.