Illinois program turns cowgirl dreams into livestock research reality

URBANA, Ill. – The moment 4-year-old Sarah Graham sat in a saddle for the first time, she announced she wanted to be a cowgirl. For the suburban Chicago preschooler, it was an unlikely dream. But it stuck.

Launching numerous careers in the beef industry, the I-BELIEF fellowship is an intensive year-long program offered through the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I, University of Illinois Extension, Illinois State University, and Western Illinois University.

Fast-forward 15 years and Graham was finishing up her first year in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, where she enrolled with the hopes of one day becoming a large-animal veterinarian. She applied to dozens of animal agriculture internships for that summer, but was rejected or ignored by every single one.

“It can be hard to break into the world of agriculture when you didn’t grow up around it,” she says. “For the summer after my sophomore year, I decided to apply to the Illinois Beef Experiential Learning and Industry Exposure (I-BELIEF) program.”

That decision changed everything.  

“The I-BELIEF program had an extraordinary impact on my life. It not only gave me mentors, research experience, and large-animal experience, it also gave me a huge amount of confidence, a best friend, and some of my biggest role models. I have said this time and time again to anyone who will listen: It was the best summer of my life,” Graham says.

Upon graduation, Graham was accepted into not one but eight veterinary schools and is now enrolled in a dual veterinary and Master of Public Health program in U of I’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Launching numerous careers in the beef industry, the I-BELIEF fellowship is an intensive year-long program offered through the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I, University of Illinois Extension, Illinois State University, and Western Illinois University.

Read more from the College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences