In the search for student diversity, CAFES serves up the whitest bread

Posted December 11, 2017

Christian Sosa is one of three kids from a mixed-heritage family. His mother’s side of the family is from the U.S., his father’s is from Honduras, and Sosa was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’s a native English-speaker, but while he was growing up, his parents tried to teach him Spanish with primer books. He learned some of the language, but it didn’t flow naturally at first.

When he was in seventh grade, however, Sosa’s parents sent him to spend some time living with an aunt in Honduras. There he learned Spanish and the culture from his father’s side of the family.

“That’s kind of where my life really began to pick up and started,” Sosa said.

Now Sosa is following the footsteps of his father, who was a dairy science major when he went through college. Sosa is a junior at UW-River Falls, and as he’s beginning to step into the job market, he’s finding that his cultural heritage  has lent him an edge in the agricultural field, where Hispanic workers are common.

“If you think about it in, like, big picture sort of terms, I kind of have somewhat of an advantage because, you know, I have the other side of the culture and everything, and actually I’m fluent in Spanish as well,” Sosa said. Not only that, he added, but he can connect with Hispanic workers on a deeper level than most of his peers.

Sosa’s cultural diversity opens up opportunities, both for him and for those who hire him. But Sosa is a rarity at UWRF, especially within the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science.

University enrollment reports show that that out of almost 6,000 students at UWRF, 87.9 percent are white. If you look closer at how diversity is distributed among the four colleges, 2017 data from Institutional Research shows that CAFES is the least diverse with 94.25 percent white students, while the College of Business and Economics has the most diversity, though it is still 81.61 percent white.

A lot of this, said CAFES Dean Dale Gallenberg, has to do with the fact that UWRF and the larger River Falls area is primarily white. A lot of recruitment for the programs within the college is done at events such as Farm Technology Days, which is a regional event that is largely visited by the local farming community.

“Is there cultural diversity?” Gallenberg said. “Yes. Would I say it is ‘great’ diversity? No. But I would also say, typically, the folks we talk to are representative of that industry within that region.”

Certain programs within CAFES see this discrepancy more sharply than others. Brittany Smith is a third-year senior in agricultural engineering technology who will be graduating early this May, and she said that she doesn’t know of any non-white students from her major. Not only that, but the major is heavily male-dominated as well.

“There’s quite a few girls in ag. majors in general,” Smith said, “but specifically ag. engineering, there’s very few.”

As a female in a heavily male-dominated career path, she said she finds that she often needs to work extra hard to prove that she’s just as capable as men at her work. In group projects, she sometimes gets the impression that her male peers are trying to out-compete her. In the job market, she said that her supervisors in the industry tend to seem surprised and impressed when she meets or exceeds the standards they expect of men.

“You just have to do so much more to stand out,” Smith said.

Youngmi Kim is an assistant professor who teaches classes within the agricultural engineering technology major, and she said she hears about a lot of stories like Smith’s. Only 15 percent of majors in the program are women, she said, and she doesn’t think that there’s enough support for female students who feel like their opinions and work are not valued.

“I don’t think that there’s any systematic help for a student who feels this way,” Kim said. Students, she said, always have the option of coming forward and talking with their professors. This can help them gain the support they need, but the problem lies in that not many people want to come forward with problems like this.

“I got this information after actually asking them, rather than them coming to me,” Kim said.

It’s a shame, she said, because there are advantages to having a gender-diverse workforce in the agricultural engineering field. Women, she finds, tend to be more detail-oriented, and men tend to be more “big picture” oriented. By combining the two viewpoints, she said, bigger problems can be solved.

“There’s a synergistic effect when they work together,” she said.

Similarly, cultural diversity can allow for larger and more-complex problems to be solved because of the different viewpoints being brought into the picture. Case in point: Kim is herself from South Korea, where she got her master’s degree in biological engineering in 2001. In Korea, she said, the mix of genders within the engineering field was very different. Her peers within her major were about 50-50 male-female ratio, and she found it very strange to come to the U.S. and find that her field was male dominated in this country.

Kim’s unique viewpoint, much like Sosa’s ability to speak Spanish, gives her unique abilities in her place of work. She can perceive problems that others might not even see, and she has begun mobilizing efforts to fix the issues by submitting research proposals that look into the problem and suggest potential solutions.

Among the things she wants to see added to CAFES, she said, are more female professors in the college and more female guest speakers to serve as role models. She would also like to see the addition of a women-in-science club on campus where female students within CAFES can gather and offer each other support.

“It’s kind of difficult to solve,” Kim said, but added that ag. engineering “is about solving problems.”