‘Outstanding’ Virginia Tech senior takes dairy award
BLACKSBURG, Va. — Sarah Thomas, the 2021 Outstanding Senior in Virginia Tech’s Department of Dairy Science, said she is filled with gratitude for the people in her life and the opportunities that have led her to this honor. Others are grateful for what Thomas has brought to the program at Virginia Tech during her four years here and especially in 2020.
“Her leadership as Dairy Club during this past COVID year has been a blessing,” Dr. Katharine Knowlton, Virginia Tech dairy science professor, wrote in a recent letter of recommendation for Thomas. “Interestingly for a farm kid from rural North Carolina, Sarah is noticeably committed to expanding the diversity of the college’s undergraduate population, working on programming focused on inclusivity and equity for students from under-represented groups”.
She said Thomas has bought people skills, verbal and written communication abilities, humility and a work ethic to the department.
“She’s the best kid in our program,” Knowlton added. “The most valuable, the most productive, the best leader and the best team player. Sarah is humble, speaks with the confidence of a former FFA state officer, and has never met a stranger. Providing leadership while expecting nothing in return is core to her self-definition.”
Knowlton, who describes herself as academic advisor, judging coach and employer for Thomas, joined the conversation with both she and Thomas sharing stories of events that led to the award.
Thomas traced her love for dairy cattle from the time she was five years old to plans for a career in agriculture communications in an on-campus interview.
She said she attended the 2003 North Carolina State Fair and watched her brother, Logan eight years her senior, showing cattle.
“I saw him showing and thought if he could do it, I could do it better,” she said, giggling. “I kind of just fell in love.”
The following spring, her dad Donnie Thomas bought her a baby heifer calf at the North Carolina State Holstein sale.
“Her name was Savannah but we called her Sissy,” she said with a grin.
Sissy died a couple of years later from fatty liver disease, Thomas said.
“I was all tore up,” she said. “I kept showing. I’m a Holstein girl.”
By the time she was a 9-year-old she was going to the National Holstein Convention. The 4-Her was thrilled to participate in the dairy judging at the convention and to meet all those kids who were interested in the same things she is, dairy cattle. This included not only owning and judging them but in play games like the Dairy Quiz Bowl and Dairy Jeopardy.
“I’ve had some really good mentors,” Thomas said.
Her dad is one of them, even though he raised Herefords, she said. His herd descends from stock on actor John Wayne’s ranch, a point of pride he holds close, she added.
“He’s been real encouraging to both kids, a daughter who likes cows and a son who enjoyed tractor pulling more,” Thomas said. “My dad has this special kind of patience with animals. My dad and I have a special bond over animals.”
Thomas said her mother Jean is not an animal person but she has always been there for her daughter, seeing that she had whatever she needed, especially when competing.
Even though her parents divorced in 1999, they continued to be there and work together for their children. This is one of the things Thomas is thankful for in her life.
She said her family always got her to her coach for Dairy Quiz and Dairy Jeopardy. That mentor, Marjie Grubb, lived in the next county. Grubb took the time to teach her the what and why, Thomas said.
She added she is grateful to the family of Darrell and Sheila Wright and their son Jason who taught her to judge cattle. The Wrights kept her cows on their farm in return for the milk they produced.
“Jason kept me grounded,” she said.
In addition to Jason, Thomas credits Melissa Staebner, Brittany Heizer and Extension agent Nancy Keith with helping her in judging cattle. She said Marguerite Fields got her into FFA “full force,” encouraging her to run for state secretary. She won and based her choice for college on that decision. She chose North Carolina State. Her reasoning was that it would be easier to go to the school where the state FFA was headquartered and carry out her vice-presidential duties.
She attended N.C. State for one year before transferring to Virginia Tech. She confessed to always being drawn to Virginia Tech so she applied, was accepted and is now completing her fourth year. Virginia Tech had always been on her radar growing up, she remembered.
“I couldn’t shake the idea of this place,” she said sitting in a classroom of the Alphine-Stuart Livestock Arena. “I’m glad I did four years here. It was a really life changing experience despite COVID.”
Knowlton took Thomas by surprise when she told her the people in the dairy science department had been watching her and wanting her to come to Virginia Tech for several years.
“Since she arrived at Virginia Tech four years ago, Sarah has continued to excel while balancing a variety of activities, she wrote in the recommendation letter.
“She is academically ambitious, a perennial Dean’s List student combining her Dairy Science major with three minors (Strategic Communication, Ag Economics, Animal Science). Also, Sarah is responsible for paying nearly all of her living expenses and her out-of-state tuition, a burden she carries lightly and without complaint. During the school year she works more than 25 hours a week as a research assistant and as a cashier for a local feed store. Sarah writes well and, after interning for Hoards Dairyman in 2019, had real impact as the author of a blog for that organization.”
Thomas confided that the intense experience at Hoards was life changing. It has taken her into the field of agricultural communications.
‘‘She also freelances as a ghost writer for various ag magazines and as a show ring photographer for Purebred Publishing,” Knowlton continued. “In summers she’s been ambitious in finding internships to prepare her for a career in communications. In addition to her work with Hoards she was the first ever Communications/Market Research intern with for Cargill.”
Knowlton noted that Thomas soon became involved in the activities of the Dairy Club, Collegiate Young Farmers, the Beef Leadership Council, and Sigma Alpha, the agricultural sorority. In these organizations, classmates recognized her work ethic and skill by electing her to significant offices (President, Secretary/Treasurer, Advocacy Chair, and President, respectively, for the four organizations listed.)
“She has been my teaching assistant for the dairy judging class for two years now and for my freshman dairy handling class last fall, and is a core member of the student ambassador team for both the department and the college. Sarah will begin work toward her M.S. in Agricultural Communication at The Ohio State University in August 2021.”
Thomas has reached way beyond the dairy community at VT her coach stated.
“Of all of Sarah’s activities at Virginia Tech and in our industry, maybe the most important is her commitment to increasing awareness of mental health issues and compassion for those facing those challenges.” Knowlton said. “She’s blogged on these topics, facilitated workshops to engage diverse groups, and recently worked with Michele Payn of www.causematters.org in an “Ag’s Next Generation” podcast discussing mental health. Within our department, having this much-loved and well-respected student leader openly discuss how she manages her own mental health has dramatically reduced the associated stigma. In the four years we’ve had Sarah T in the department I’ve seen a 10-fold increase in students openly addressing their own problems in this regard.”