When Sally Williams first stepped foot on the University of Florida campus in 1975 to begin her master’s degree studying food microbiology, she experienced culture shock. The fast-paced environment, bicycles everywhere and thousands of students who didn’t look like her required Williams to adjust quickly.
Williams, a graduate of Albany State University, one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), was one of 44 students who completed a master’s degree at UF through the Rockefeller Foundation scholarship program. On the evening of Feb. 22, the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) hosted the first-ever reunion for the UF graduates of the Rockefeller Foundation scholarship program.
The dinner event included a welcome from UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) Dean Elaine Turner; interactive roundtable discussions with current CALS students in the Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) organization; and an alumni update. Williams said the attendees looked forward to meeting again soon.
“Our college is grounded in the land-grant ideals of access, innovation and relevance,” Dean Turner said. “It’s an honor to recognize the diversity of our alumni in an event like this, and introduce them to current CALS students who can look up to them as examples and mentors in their career fields.”
The partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and UF aimed to increase the number of black professionals in the agriculture workforce and in higher education. The scholarship accepted students in 1969 through 1975, providing a stipend for each scholarship recipient and covering all tuition costs of their graduate degree.
“I’m very grateful to the Rockefeller Foundation for giving me my start,” said Williams, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in food microbiology from UF. “We really were set up for success. The scholarship and stipend allowed us to really concentrate on our studies.”
Williams, now an associate professor in the UF/IFAS animal sciences department, credits her smooth transition to UF to former CALS Assistant Dean Jack Fry in addition to faculty mentors and fellow students in the UF/IFAS food science and human nutrition department.
“My experiences were great,” Williams said. “Dr. Fry understood that this was a different environment for us, but he was firm, saying, ‘You can handle the work and do this; don’t be afraid to come to my office and talk.’ That was really important to know his door was always open.”
As a faculty member at UF, Williams continues to extend the same welcoming mentorship to students that her teachers and colleagues provided while she was in school. She currently serves as a faculty adviser for MANRRS, mentor for the University Multicultural Mentoring Program, and research adviser for undergraduate students who conduct six-week summer research internships with the UF/IFAS animal sciences department.
When working with students, Williams tries to identify their intended career goals. She said she sees it as her responsibility to take that extra step to connect her mentees to other faculty across campus depending on their career interests. She finds it essential to help forge those contacts for students, and notices other CALS faculty doing the same.
“There’s something in agriculture for everybody,” Williams said. “In the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, we still have that opportunity to show students the variety of careers in agriculture. We’re definitely doing that, and you can see it across campus and in our communities.”
The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. The college has received more total (national and regional combined) USDA teaching awards than any other institution. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.