For Alicia Walker, Ph.D., the road to where she is now was neither easy nor conventional. Living in Mississippi, being a wife and mother to a baby and a 5 year old when she started her poultry science doctoral program in Texas, certainly came with unique challenges.
But she says she wouldn’t change a single thing.
Walker is a 2022 graduate of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Poultry Science. She recently assumed the role of senior director of quality assurance and food safety-retail with Wayne-Sanderson Farms in Laurel, Mississippi, but has been in the poultry industry for 17 years.
“I didn’t choose poultry science; poultry science chose me,” said Walker.
Prior to attending Texas A&M University, she obtained her bachelor’s degree in biology and her master’s degree in hazardous material management from Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
Below, Walker shares how the poultry industry found her, the role the department played in that journey and how she triumphed over the obstacles in her path as a nontraditional, distance-learning student.
What do you do?
In my current role, I ensure that quality and food safety standards adhere to customer expectations and support the retail business unit’s organizational policies and objectives. Additionally, I oversee quality assurance managers at all our retail complexes throughout the company.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
The best thing is being part of a team responsible for producing safe, quality products that feed the world. It brings me great joy to walk into a grocery store, see our quality product, and know that I assisted in leading a team to produce it. Additionally, I enjoy leading six talented managers who have been an inspiration and a pleasure to have on my team.
Why did you choose to attend Texas A&M?
I chose Texas A&M after meeting Christine Alvarado, Ph.D., a former faculty member in the department, at a campylobacter bacteria workshop at Auburn University. We connected instantly, and she suggested I apply to the master’s program in poultry science. Since I already had a master’s degree, I decided to pursue a doctorate. Not only did Dr. Alvarado strongly recommend me to apply, but my coworkers also spoke highly of the university and the program. After further research, I found that the school was one of the country’s highest-rated poultry science programs. Due to being employed full time out of state and the university having a hybrid schedule that provides flexibility to the working student, it was a no-brainer that Texas A&M became my school of choice.
What made you choose poultry science?
Poultry science chose me. Never in a million years would I have imagined having a career in poultry science, but it was the best decision ever. When I first went to school, pediatric dentistry was my true passion. After working in the poultry industry for 10 years, pursuing the academic knowledge to support what I fell in love with was only fitting. Since I had a master’s degree, obtaining a doctorate or becoming a veterinarian was the only option to advance my career to the next level with Wayne-Sanderson Farms.
What were some challenges you faced as a distance-learning student?
While there were changes I had to adapt to along the way, I was too invested to not see it through.
I had two faithful committee members with me from the beginning to the end, and I could not be more thankful for them. To help me get back on track, one of them reached out on my behalf to John Carey, Ph.D., professor of production management in the department, and asked him to help me finish the program, and we started to rock and roll.
At that point, I had nearly completed all my classes and only had my data analysis left. My project was completed in the final year and a half instead of being spread over time in the program like most students. My new committee pushed me to unimaginable limits, and I am so grateful they invested in me.
The last challenge I faced was defense day. I was scheduled to defend on the last day of defenses. On my way to campus, I was informed the university was closing at noon that day to observe the Juneteenth holiday, and no one would be there. I called Dr. Carey, and he reassured me everything would be okay. The most important people for a very important day were present, my committee and husband. It was a journey, but God was in it all. I graduated in August 2022.
What helped you overcome those challenges?
I endured so many bumps along the way that sometimes I am uncertain how I finished. I worked all day, spent time with my family and did homework after everyone fell asleep. I didn’t want my children to feel my absence due to schoolwork. I often did homework at my kid’s sporting events and in hotels across the country while traveling for work. I certainly did not function on a regular schedule.
It was the most challenging time of my life, but I could not give up. I kept pushing because I had so many people rooting for me. After pulling myself together, I started rooting for myself. I remembered my “why” and set a goal: graduation.
I also have to credit Liz Hirschler, a past mentor in the department. She walked with me through every step and kept me on track even while going through the changes. It is so important to have a great support system, both within and without the university.
Even though my original committee did not pan out, I’m still thankful for every challenge because it sparked a different fire in me that I did not know existed.
Can you share a fond memory from your time in the Department of Poultry Science?
Since I was not a traditional student, I do not have all the fond and exciting memories of being in the laboratories and participating in shows. If I had to share my fondest memory, it would be Rosemary Walzem, Ph.D., professor of nutritional biochemistry in the department, giving me my first opportunity to share my career path with students. It was my first time speaking to college students. Intimidating. The classroom had an inviting atmosphere and sparked a passion for becoming a mentor to students interested in the poultry industry, especially women. Since that initial invitation to speak over five years ago, I have returned to speak to POSC 381, Investigation of Professional Development in Poultry Science, every semester.
What advice would you give current poultry science students interested in pursuing a career similar to yours?
I would advise them to be humble and remain true to themselves. One of the biggest lessons I have learned in this industry is to surround yourself with people who want you to be successful, and remember that success takes time. Through my studies, I have learned that the race is not given to the strong but to the one who endures to the end. As my current boss recently reminded me, “In the end, it doesn’t matter who they call you or how much you make; the most important thing is that when you work hard and always give your best, you will be rewarded.”
I would also tell students to never get discouraged and never give up. Things do not always go as planned, but get up and try again when you get knocked down.
Lastly, I would encourage students to apply for summer internships. By participating in internships, they can get real experience in their field of study and decide if it is their chosen career path. Internships allow the opportunity to forge connections with industry professionals.
Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in, and what you’re committed to in your work and life?
My mother is my mentor and has taught me everything I believe in and the importance of hard work. She has instilled in me to put God first, and everything else will fall into place. My drive, work ethic and determination all come from my mom. If it were not for her constant guidance and my stepdad’s silent praise, I would not be where I am today. She taught me to be strong, resilient and a fighter. My biggest supporters and motivators are my husband, family, coworkers and circle of friends.
What is your favorite poultry dish?
I’m pretty basic when it comes to poultry dishes. I like wings and chicken alfredo pasta.