It’s a bright summer afternoon in 2016, and UW–Madison undergraduate Donale Richards accompanies a small group of high schoolers on a visit to the UW Dairy Cattle Center. They meet the cows — with a mix of excitement and trepidation — and peruse the milking equipment to fully appreciate what goes into milk production. The group then finds itself in a sunlit room occupied by a single Holstein. She has a small, circular door in her side — a fistula.
When their tour guide asks if they want to reach inside to feel the contents of the cow’s stomach, most students look unsure. Their noses wrinkle in response to the distinct aroma of the barn and the unusual opportunity in front of them. But one young man steps up to be the first. He reaches inside, a look of awe on his face as he clutches the remnants of the cow’s recent meals. Not to be outdone, Richards follows suit, announcing, “Well, I better give it a try!”
An incoming senior at UW–Madison at the time, Richards was serving as a coordinator for PEOPLE (Pre-college Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence), which introduces underprivileged teens to the UW–Madison campus, a place they may otherwise know little about. His group of students was taking part in the food and agricultural sciences arm of the program.
Throughout their stay on campus, the students saw many aspects of what the university has to offer. But that summer day in 2016 they learned about a quintessential Wisconsin animal — the dairy cow. They also got the chance to experience some of what researchers do. The contents of cows’ stomachs are studied for a number of purposes, including identifying ideal diets, improving milk production, and understanding bacterial communities in the gut. This is why some cows are implanted with fistulas, which serve as a painless and sealable passageway to the gut. The awed (and disgusted) high school students had a rare chance to see — and feel — that research firsthand.
“This was certainly their first chance to reach inside a cow’s stomach, and for most, even just walking into a dairy barn is a new experience,” Richards says.
PEOPLE has been providing opportunities like these since 1999. A college pipeline for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, PEOPLE provides college preparation services and builds academic, interpersonal, and communication skills while also helping students explore academic and career interests. More than half of the program’s students are admitted to UW–Madison, where they receive a four-year tuition scholarship. The program’s first-year retention rate for college scholars is around 90 percent.
For high school students in the program, the summer provides a chance to live in campus dorms and become fully immersed in the college experience. As soon-to-be, or “rising,” sophomores and juniors, students stay on campus for three weeks. Rising seniors take part in a five-week curriculum that includes an internship or research experience. All of these programs are meant to give students who may otherwise not think about college a chance to explore and consider it for their futures.
“It’s very rigorous for these students,” Richards says. “They are living away from their families, and it can be difficult at first. But it’s a great exposure to the campus, and living in the dorms is their first opportunity to experience the university.”
Richards knows about the experience firsthand — he is a PEOPLE scholar himself. He took part in the program for a decade, starting in middle school and earning his UW–Madison degree in August 2017. As a coordinator of the summer program, he also served as a role model for its high school students — an up-close example of someone who had benefited from the PEOPLE program.
“The biggest thing I think I’ll take from the PEOPLE program is the network,” says Richards. “I saw different kinds of opportunities and met people I would have never met. It has really influenced me to make better decisions about what I want to do with my life. And now I get to share those lessons with new students as they go through the program.”
Continue reading this story in the Fall 2017 issue of Grow magazine.