Meet Kaitlyn A. Murray, Science and Agricultural Education Ph.D. Student
Who belongs in agriculture? Kait is a resilient and devoted community leader whose life mission is to make agriculture a more inclusive and diverse space.
Kait occupies dual roles as a Ph.D. Student in Science and Agricultural Education at the University of California, Davis, and a First Year Experience Coordinator at UC Davis’s Office of New Student Academic Services. Through her staff position, she has the opportunity to coordinate academic programs for first-year students living on campus, including creating and teaching seminars on affecting social change through agriculture.
For Kait's Ph.D. project, she is the principal investigator of a study that examines how participation in a field-based science and leadership program impacts youth participants, student volunteers, and other stakeholders. In another line of work, she is collaborating with a multidisciplinary research team of industry professionals and academics to understand perceptions of diversity by people employed in the agricultural industry, with a specific goal of uncovering perceptions of LGBTQ+ agriculturalists. Over the coming year, Kait will be starting her dissertation work – a study of LGBTQ+ alumni of 4-H and FFA.
"Drawing on community leadership, multicultural education, and equity studies, I have the privilege of working alongside incredible youth and educators to co-define research agendas around community needs. Together, we seek to disrupt dominant narratives of who belongs and who leads in the field of agriculture and environmental science."
Kait was meant to be in agriculture
Kait grew up on a small hobby farm in northwestern New Jersey, where her family raised alpacas, goats, horses, and honey bees. Growing up on a farm gave her the chance to make the whole world her lab. Kait was specifically passionate about horses and joined 4-H in middle school. This experience is when everything clicked for her. She entered every program she could, and traveled across the country to compete in horse knowledge contests against other youth.
Learning science was a rush, and I knew right then that was what I was meant to do for my career. My knowledge about and relationships with animals, plants, and the ground that sustains them formed the backdrop to discovering myself and a sense of purpose. In 4-H, I could be myself and find my people like I never could in school. Science was so tangible, so accessible, and so fun.
Because of 4-H, Kait was sure she wanted to be an equine veterinarian when she grew up. From this moment, she decided to take agriculture at school. However, upon enrolling on her first agriscience class, people told her that no one could make a living working with horses and that agricultural education couldn’t prepare her for that career. Kait promptly changed her major on her college applications to Biology, and only took ‘science classes’ – not agriculture classes. This was the first time she decided to leave the field of agriculture.
Feeling like an outsider in my own field... do I really belong here?
Kait started her bachelor's degree in 2008 at Ohio State, where she enrolled in a biology program and was confident she could be a veterinarian since biology was a "real science." On her junior year, she finally decided to take animal science classes for fun, but she had mixed feelings about the environment in the Ag department. As she walked through the hallways to her animal science classes, she passed through a wall of framed photos of former deans, department chairs, and professors: "It was a continous line of dozens of (presumably) straight, white, old, Christian men." She felt they were watching over her, and it was a constant reminder that those walls were not built for people like her.
There was an ever-present tension in those halls, and as I progressed in my degrees, the tension manifested in tangible ways. My friends who similarly did not fit started dropping out, transferring colleges, and dying by their own hands. "Dykes don’t belong in agriculture. Get out, girl. This is not yours." The men in the hallway watched silently, never averting their eyes.
Every cloud has a silver lining
Kait met her incredible partner, another animal science major, and they started working to create programming to address and talk about these issues of equity and inclusion in agriculture. Alongside she met colleagues and friends who supported and encouraged her to stay when she wanted to leave; she was able to build a community. In 2012, Kait graduated with a Biology degree, and an Animal Sciences degree in 2013, and started working in the agricultural industry.
Agriculture always found a way back to Kait
Unfortunately, these tensions Kait felt weren’t confined to academia. After a short time on the job, they realized she was different. It remains legal in Ohio to fire an employee based on sexual orientation. Kait decided to leave agriculture again, and it took her two years to find her way back again. "This time, I was determined to understand why these classrooms seemed to push against me, demanding my silence and minimization of self in order to function comfortably." Kait enrolled in a master's program at the ACEL Department at OSU and her project resulted in developing new lessons to promote socio-cultural conversations in community leadership classes.
Kait exposed herself to a vast range of opportunities, including mentoring roles, research appointments, teaching courses, and volunteer opportunities that challenged who belonged in agriculture. She was able to mentor LGBTQ+ students in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) to conduct focus groups, develop policies, and create community spaces for LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff. After graduating from her Master’s in Agricultural Extension Education specializing in Community Leadership at Ohio State, that's when Kait finally joined UC Davis where she is currently working and pursuing her Ph.D.
Piece of advice
Kait wants you to know that you are NOT defined by one job, one vision of success, or one life. After Kait's career didn't go as she planned, it took her years to realize that she was still herself and that her good and bad experiences were also part of who she was.
"There was the almost-life where I was a veterinarian, the years I spent solely focused on that goal. I was a sales professional at a men’s specialty retailer. I was an almost-graphic designer. I was an archeologist in field school. I was a telemarketer. I was an almost-reproductive physiologist. I was a student affairs officer. I was an almost-marketing professional. I am a Ph.D. student. I am an educator. I am a scholar. I am multitudes of lives and almost lives, most of which I haven’t even begun to dream of."
She also expresses that it is essential to find your people. People that you can be comfortable crying, people that will study with you, people that will laugh with you and people who would fight for you and push you to do more. One specific person or mentor does not fit all of these roles, find your self a community and network that will support and empower you.
Work-life balance is key
Kait is heavily involved in her local LGBTQ+ community and spends most of her free time organizing and hanging out with them. She also spends a significant portion of time as a co-founder of Girls’ Outdoor Adventure in Leadership and Science (GOALS).
The future is nothing but bright
After finishing the Ph.D. Kait wants to obtain a tenure-track position in Community Leadership that is housed in a Department of Agricultural Education.
We’re facing so many huge, complex, terrifying problems in the world, and agriculture plays a role in creating and solving many of the most important ones. We can’t address them without addressing who is making these decisions that impact us all. I want the chance to shape the forces that pushed me out.
Diversity and inclusion are the ANSWER
Kait says it's important to highlight women in agriculture because it allows us to envision futures for ourselves that we couldn’t imagine. Sharing stories like Kait give younger women a role model who looks like them and who you can be fully yourself.
"As a white, lesbian, woman, it has quite literally saved my life and my career to know that there were other people like me. And that’s coming from someone who has so much privilege."
Kait wants you to check out these fantastic initiatives!
Soul Fire Farm http://soulfirefarm.org
Interlocking Roots https://interlockingroots.wordpress.com
Country Queers https://www.instagram.com/countryqueers/
Cultivating Change Foundation https://cultivatingchangefoundation.org
Kait also has other resources, contacts, and support groups specifically related to LGBTQ+ people in agriculture. To protect the safety and privacy of these spaces, they are not shared in this platform, but she highly encourages you to reach out to her if you are interested!
You can find Kait at:
Thanks, Kait for sharing your story with us!
-The WAGS TEAM
[Kait's interview was transcribed by WAGS Team member: Marlia Bosques Martínez.]