Kristen Corey Reflects on Mentorship, 15 Years Later

Fifteen years ago Kristen Corey participated in a program called Life in Iowa through Iowa State University, which was an internship program that found positions for students to work in rural areas for nonprofits and other rural businesses. The purpose was to learn about living well, being connected in your local community, and the importance of service learning. When Denise O’Brien came to talk to the class about her work and life Kristen knew she wanted to work for her.

Kristen was a psychology student at Iowa State University at the time planning to go into school psychology. She was also very interested in environmental science and found herself pulled in that direction. Denise became her mentor for the summer. She worked on the farm at Rolling Acres and in the office (out of Denise’s home at the time) for the Women, Food and Agriculture Network. It was an opportunity to work on a variety of skills, from weeding to grant writing to the importance of working with other agencies. For the service learning portion of the program, she also worked with the Cass County naturalist on environmental education.

“For me it was a really good opportunity because I had never been in a room of such powerful women before – and all at one time. I truly believe that women and girls sometimes have to see it to be it. Having good role models shows you what you can do. For [Denise], mentoring me probably didn’t seem like a big deal, but it was. After I interned with her, I added a minor in agronomy and added a second major, environmental studies. Changing my major was a big turning point in my life. I then went on to get a M.S. in sustainable agriculture. I would go back home to Fort Dodge, my hometown, and people would think I was becoming a farmer and it wouldn’t make sense to them. I had fun trying to explain why what I was doing–sociology and agronomy–makes complete sense. It’s all about building community.”

Kristen is now the Program Planner at the Iowa Department of Human Rights’ Office on the Status of Women and holds an M.S. in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture. She recently shared her reflections after introducing Denise at a recent Chrysalis Conversations Speaker Series event. Read what she learned below:

My wife loves buying new shoes

In late March, I had the honor of introducing my former boss and early mentor at a Chrysalis’ Conversation series luncheon – Denise O’Brien, co-founder of the Women, Food and Agriculture Network (WFAN) and 2000 Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame honoree.

As I read through the script the night before and made a few tweaks, my mind wandered to all of the things Denise has faced throughout her life as a woman in agriculture. It also went back to the summer of my sophomore year of college doing an internship with the WFAN, living and working with Denise and her family on their family’s farm. At the time, I was in my early 20s at Iowa State University (ISU), still trying to figure out which path to take in life. That summer, I met more women in agriculture than I did during my several years in agricultural classes at ISU.

My mind flew back to the times I sat alone – often the sole female – in my agronomy classes and labs, looking in vain for someone else to relate to and to ask questions to without feeling embarrassed. I remembered the time one of my male classmates actually looked at me and asked me point blank, “Why are you here?”

I recalled the time as the sole female in my welding class at a community college when my instructor walked into the room, looked straight at me, and said with a laugh, “Is everyone here in the right place? Everyone?” and most of the other guys in the room looked straight at me and laughed. My memory went back to the start of that same class when the same instructor, as I was having problems operating an angle grinder, looked at me and said with a short laugh, "Welcome to welding." Never mind the fact that a male friend of mine, who was taking the same class and standing beside me at the time was having the same problems operating a grinder. He did not get the same "welcome" message from our instructor - nor did he receive the special recognition that I did when our class came to a close and our instructor announced to all that he was pleasantly surprised with the quality of my welds.

I also remembered the time during the same class when an older man asked me why I wasn’t taking home economics, and followed with, “Those boots look new. Did you just buy them? My wife loves buying new shoes.”

That semester, to the astonishment of the others in my class, I made sure my welds were absolutely flawless. I could not afford to make mistakes.

Being a female in a male-dominated field can be incredibly lonely. The pressure is on to prove yourself in a world where you are often seen as more of a nuisance than a colleague – or more of a joke than someone with the knowledge and skills to be taken seriously.

I feel so honored to have had the numerous early female mentors I did to teach me how to be tough and power through when most are saying you can’t and when others are waiting for you to fail. Female networks and early and continued mentoring are so important in keeping women interested in the science, technology, engineering, math, business and agricultural fields. We need each other.