The Magic of Experiential Learning and Mentorship – Rachelle Foss

Rachelle Foss (nee Davidson) is the Technical Services Supervisor at Maple Leaf Foods Inc.(MLF), a promotion that she accepted in February 2024. Foss joined the company in 2018 as Animal Health and Welfare Technician, moving to Technical Services Lead in 2020. Rachelle oversees a team dedicated to on-farm technical support and service for Alberta broiler and broiler breeder farms. Her position is focused on poultry husbandry, health, and scientific technical transfer. Foss is also experienced in conventional and RWA production and is PAACO certified. Graduating from the U of A in 2015 with a BSc in Biology/Biological Sciences and a minor in Agriculture, Rachelle worked at the U of A Poultry Unit (PRC) as an Animal Technician until 2018.

Although Rachelle has been working in the poultry industry for only 8 years, her impact both professionally and as a volunteer is staggering. Early experiences as a learning coach and agriculture research volunteer and valuable hands-on skills from her time at the PRC set the stage for continued and generous donation of her time as an industry professional. Foss joined the PIP Board in 2018, currently sits on the Education and Mentoring and Leveraging committees and is a past Vice Chair and Governance committee member. She is a member of the 2024 Board of Directors for PSIW, has participated multiple times as a processing expert for the PIP Get Set for Your Future student/industry event, volunteered her time and expertise for the HCP Small Flock Workshops and has thrice hosted students at Maple Leaf for the ALES Mini Internship Program. 

Rachelle Foss at the PIP Student Event Get Set for Your Future in 2023

Foss entered university with aspirations to go to medical school. She went course exploring when she realized that medicine was not the right path and stumbled across animal science. 

“Animal science was the first time in my university experience that I didn’t feel like my soul was being sucked away from me,” mused Foss. “I figured I should probably lean into that some more and explore my options. I was not able to switch to ALES, so I opted to stay in the faculty of Science and take Agriculture as my minor. That decision brought me to AnSc 200, and my life was forever changed.”

1. Please describe the moment when you realized that working in the poultry industry could be a very real career choice for you.

Such a good question! I had to do some serious reflection to figure out when that moment was for me. My path into poultry felt like it grew organically but I didn’t know it at the time.

When I was in Animal Science 200 (now known as Animal Science 101), we had labs that took us to a variety of farms. One of the first locations we attended was the Poultry Research Centre (PRC) on south campus. This was where I had my first ever hands-on experience with livestock. I remember staring at the heritage birds through the pen door, admiring them as they clucked around. My class learning coaches caught a few birds and let us hold them while Dr. Frank Robinson taught us about the basics of poultry. While it may have been a small experience, it was incredibly impactful – I didn’t want to leave! Throughout the course I had the opportunity to experience other commodities, but I will never forget the initial excitement I felt being so close to an animal at the PRC.

“This picture was from that day – I have it framed in my home office. When work gets busy, it helps remind me of my humble beginnings and how hard I have worked to be where I am now!”

Just over one year later, as the days counted towards the end of my volunteer work with Dr. Teryn and her masters project, I remember sitting on the bus and realizing that I wasn’t going to be in a barn on a weekly basis anymore. I felt this pang of anxiety in my chest and stomach because being in the barns brought me so much joy and happiness; the thought of not having that regularly felt wrong. That was when I knew I absolutely had to figure out a way to have a career in agriculture.

It wasn’t until I was in my last semester of school that I really found my way to poultry. In my plight to carve my career in agriculture, I began asking professors about any opportunities they might know of or have access to. I was hungry – I knew the days were counting down until I graduated and I still had no work lined up. I was hoping they might have something coming up as a research assistant. Rather, Dr. Martin Zuidhof gave me a heads up that there was a position opening at the PRC in the spring. When the job posting went live, I had my resume ready to go. My first day on the job started 3 days after my last university exam.

2. Did experiential learning influence your decision to work in poultry? (Example, hands-on work in the poultry unit, or as part of your grad studies, or through an internship?) How?

Experiential learning absolutely influenced my decision to work in poultry, and it still does to this day. 

  1. AnSc 200 (101) gave me the initial experience of seeing a functional barn and holding a bird.
  2. Supporting Dr. Teryn’s master research gave me the chance to see poultry from a research perspective, as well as spending quality time with birds. This allowed me to better understand what it takes to care for birds. I also had the chance to build handling skills, like weighing, feeding, and euthanasia.
  3. Helping Dr. Zuidhof dissect birds for research taught me basic anatomy and tissue sampling skills that I use even today.
  4. Working at the PRC gave me an endless list of real-life experiential learning opportunities, which have been invaluable for helping me support farmers now. Learning to not be afraid of getting your hands dirty is truly a life skill.

In all hands-on learning scenarios, the opportunity to experience something personally really helps you to understand the experience that someone else has. This ultimately teaches you those sought-after people skills, like empathy, patience, creative thinking, and time management.

3. What teachers or poultry community mentors influenced your decision to work in poultry? What advice would you share based on your experience? 

The mentors that saw my future in poultry long before I saw it were Dr. Frank Robinson and Dr. Teryn Girard.  Frank asked me to be a learning coach for the subsequent AnSc 200 class so I could keep my foot in the barn door, and Teryn asked me to help with her research observations a semester after that. Without those continued experiential learning opportunities, I’m not totally sure if I would have made the commitment to agriculture, let alone poultry. 

Dr. Martin Zuidhof and Lyle Bouvier took a chance on hiring me to work at the PRC. Even though I was green, they saw the opportunity for an eager student to cut their teeth and gain real barn experience. Again, without those critical experiences, I don’t think I would be in the same position as I am now.

My jump from research to industry would not have been possible without Teryn and Dr. Kathleen Long. Teryn initially reached out to me with the job description for Maple Leaf Foods, urging me to apply as she felt I would be a fantastic fit. Kathleen took that same chance on me and hired a green person to industry.

A few words of advice I can give:

  •  No one is going to hand you a career other than yourself. Make sure you are putting in the effort; it’s not just grades!
  •  There are people out there that want you to succeed. You’ll know which people those are. Build and maintain your relationship with them.
  •  Pay attention to the things that keep you interested without a lot of effort. There’s probably something there, lean into it.
  •  Prioritize experiential learning. Sometimes things can look great in the textbook, but are totally different in practice. You can’t really know until you give it a go yourself.
  •  Often the worst thing that can happen is that you learn you don’t like something. That’s not a bad thing.

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