Kayla Braggs: Sowing Seeds of Service

“It was never a matter of "if" I was going to an HBCU; it was a matter of which one.”

Kayla Braggs shares her path to FAMU, what's taking her to East Lansing, and the importance of Black people being represented in agriculture.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jared: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, Kayla. Tell us about yourself.

Kayla Braggs: Greetings! I am a recent graduate of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University with a degree in food science and agribusiness, summa cum laude. I am originally from Atlanta, Georgia. I'm a third-generation HBCU attendee. My parents went to Hampton, my grandparents went to Virginia State, my grandpa went to med school at Howard, and all my parent's siblings went to HBCUs. It was never a matter of "if" I was going to an HBCU; it was a matter of which one. My dad says all the time that he had a vision of me going to FAMU, and when I went for the first time the light bulb kind of went off. I really liked the campus, the students' energy and atmosphere, and the faculty. When it came down to actually going to college, I was between Howard and FAMU. Howard pretty much gave me a full ride. I kept telling myself, "You're crazy if you're going to turn down a full ride to Howard University." So I put it out to God, asking," What do I need to do?" After that, I kept seeing orange and green in the store. I kept running into FAMU alumni. I kept seeing FAMU license plates on the street or on the expressway. I eventually decided to take a leap of faith. And I can honestly say coming to FAMU was the best decision I ever made.

Jared: What makes FAMU so unique to you?

Kayla Braggs: You meet lifelong friends. You meet people who will be godparents to your kids and people who are going to be in your wedding. The relationships with professors and mentors that I have are life-lasting. From the time I said I was going to FAMU, even before my official decision, FAMU alumni wrapped their arms around me. They said, "Whatever you need, whatever you are going to require to achieve or be successful, we got you." And that was not just a promise. It was a fact. They were there from when I stepped foot on campus to when I walked across the stage. I bleed orange and green. I was able to become the woman I wanted to become. I would do it all over again.

Jamie: What are some of the things you were involved in on campus?

Kayla Braggs: I did a lot on campus. I was in SGA all four years. I was in the FAMU Student Senate. I served on the Student Relations Committee as vice-chair, chair, and Activity and Service liaison. I was the Organization and Finance Committee chairwoman this past year for SGA. I was a presidential ambassador, an "Orange & Green" guide, and a CAFS ambassador. In all of those capacities, I recruited students on and off-campus. I was in the Honors Program and the Cultivating Undergraduate Research Scholars program for three and a half years. I am a Spring 2021 Initiate of The REAL Beta Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, where I served as a chapter parliamentarian and the requisitions chair, Miss DST 2021-2022. I also was in the Leadership Delta class of 2021-2022. I was a Girl Scout co-leader and volunteered with them for three years. And I maintained a 4.0, so I definitely was busy.
Jamie: Talk about it! I love to hear all the great things you've done. I'm interested in hearing you discuss your interest in food and agriculture. Where did that come from? And how did FAMU help facilitate that?

Kayla Braggs:  I did not come to FAMU to study agriculture. I originally was a pharmacy student because FAMU has a top pharmacy program. I thought that if I was going to go to pharmacy school, then I needed to go to FAMU. The February before I graduated high school, I realized I did not want to be a pharmacist. So I tried to find something science-based and business-oriented. I came across the food science department at FAMU, and the year I arrived, they introduced tracks. I was on the business track. That track is for someone like me who likes science and wants to do something STEM-based. Instead of courses like organic chemistry or biochemistry, you take accounting, finance, economics of agriculture, and agriculture policy. It's essentially the business of the agricultural food industry. Being on this track led to my involvement in MANRRS, which stands for Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related sciences. I served as the Region 2 Undergraduate Vice President my junior year, and last year I served as the National Undergraduate President. I loved traveling to different schools, speaking to students, and telling my story about why I did agriculture because there aren't many people who look like me in the field.

Jared: Okay, cool. Yeah, that's lovely. I want to hop back into something you touched on earlier. What's the importance of having Black people represented in agriculture?

Kayla Braggs: Right now, the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, is an African American woman. She actually was the Dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State. So far, there's only been one African American man who was the Secretary under Clinton. African Americans naturally have a negative connotation with agriculture because of its association with slavery. And I think that naturally pulls people away because of the perception. But it's much more than farming; only about 2% of jobs in agriculture directly deal with farming. Because of that, there are so many fields from agricultural law, business, engineering, public health, education, and communications within agriculture. Any job or major you can think of is in agriculture, and you can do it well. Having more Black people represented will open up career opportunities that people may not have known about before.

Jared: That is a great segue to graduate school. How did you decide on where to go? What were you looking for?

Kayla Braggs: I did not figure out that I was going to graduate school until the summer before my senior year, so I started a little bit late. I am a USDA 1890 scholar, and they paid for three years of school. Through the program, I had internships during my summers and eventually a job after graduation. I worked it out with my director to where I could possibly go to graduate school before starting the job. I researched programs and honed in on what I wanted to do. In the fall of my senior year, I did grad school visits, all of which were paid for (You can get grad school and grad school visits paid for). I applied and was accepted with funding to Purdue, Michigan State, Auburn, North Carolina A&T, and the University of Nebraska. It turned out that this decision was even more challenging than deciding where to go to undergrad because each school has its perks. The final three were North Carolina A&T, Purdue, and Michigan State.

Jared: How did you decide between those three programs?

Kayla Braggs: North Carolina A&T was the first school I looked into at the end of sophomore year, and it was really, really hard for me to say no, but they didn't have the Ph.D. path I wanted. Purdue and Michigan State were the last two standing, neck and neck, for a long time. The stipend was exactly the same. The cost of living was roughly the same. The location was roughly the same, but ultimately, Michigan State won. One specific faculty member who had reached out to me told me she wanted to work with me. She had recently had her second baby, and between her two-year-old daughter taking a nap and her newborn taking a nap, she talked with me for almost two hours. Her taking the time to speak to me and saying she wanted to work with me showed me how special Michigan State was. When I went to visit like they remembered little things on my application that proved they actually read about me. I did make the decision to go to Michigan State, and I'm really happy I did. I'm moving to East Lansing where I'll be in the master's program in Agriculture, Food, and Resource Economics, intending to convert it to a Ph.D. after the first year. I'll be there for about four and a half years to get my Ph.D.

Jamie: Last question for you, Kayla. How do you envision the impact that you will make in your career?

Kayla Braggs: I first want to be the Administrator of a USDA agency, pretty much the CEO of the organization. All agencies have someone who's the "head honcho," and I want that to be me in the next 20 to 25 years. After that, I want to be Secretary of Agriculture. In the past 30 years, most secretaries have been lawyers in state or national politics. I want to change the narrative that you don't know how to do policy if you're not a lawyer. I want to look at how sustainability practices impact the supply chain of small-scale farmers, specifically here in the US, because many past secretaries focused on large-scale producers. How do the decisions made in DC impact the small-scale peanut farmer in Georgia? Or your cattle farmer in North Texas? Or your rice farmer in Arkansas? Having a pure agriculture background and tailoring my way of thinking and decision-making for how agriculture is supposed to be is what I believe can help me make that impact.

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