Agriculture wasn’t on Kelli Gillespie’s mind when she came to Virginia Tech. Instead, Gillespie was set on becoming a small animal veterinarian.

But then Gillespie, a fourth-generation Hokie, volunteered for Michelle Rhoades, an associate professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, in her bovine reproduction lab. She helped on a project studying the effects of glucose and insulin concentrations on follicles under heat stress conditions of lactating Holstein cows.

The research project started at Kentland Farm before it transitioned to Virginia Tech’s main campus. As an undergraduate research assistant, Gillespie helped with feedings, recordkeeping, and twice-a-day milking at noon and midnight, which the dairy cattle need twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

“This experience completely changed the course of my life,” said Gillespie, a graduating senior from Richmond. “I had never touched a dairy cow before. That research lab flipped the narrative for me because I got to experience things that I had never done before. I realized that I loved them and I wanted to keep going along that track in my college career.”

Gillespie added a dairy science major to her animal and poultry sciences major, including an emphasis on livestock management. Her dream to be a small animal veterinarian morphed into something, quite literally, larger.

“Everything in the college is connected,” Gillespie said. “You need people to produce the food, people to take care of the animals, and people to share with others how to best use the resources, how to cook the food, and what we should be eating. The college covers all areas vital to life.”

The vividness of those interconnected lines increased for Gillespie when she became a student employee at the Copenhaver Sheep Center, where she works four days a week.

Gillespie also is an undergraduate representative to the college’s Dean’s Advisory Council, where she provides the perspective of students and how any programs, activities, or other initiatives affect them.

The experience has been valuable for Gillespie, who said that it was an opportunity to truly see everything that goes on in a college and to have a positive impact on other students — both current and prospective.

“Something that a lot of students don’t realize is that we are a land-grant institution and, as such, we do a lot for the state,” Gillespie said. “Everyone knows that we wear maroon and orange at Virginia Tech. But they don’t know that we wear maroon because of agriculture.”

Gillespie is also an animal science student ambassador, where she had the opportunity to develop professional leadership skills to provide prospective students and their families with a student’s perspective of Virginia Tech and the animal and poultry sciences program as a whole.

While her time as an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech is concluding, Gillespie won’t be far this fall. She’ll be attending the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to pursue her dream of being a veterinarian — just for large animals.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences “is very unique in the way it allows students to have hands-on experiences with animals that people would otherwise never have the opportunity to work with,” Gillespie said. “I feel this allows students to form a better understanding of their interests within the field of animal and poultry sciences and is invaluable to our future success.”

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