Rachel Kanefsky believes in leading by example.

So much so, in fact, that Kanefsky wants to join the Army Veterinary Corps service provision in Africa.

“I can think of no greater way to give back then by serving our country,” Kanefsky said.

For Kanefsky, living Virginia Tech’s motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) isn’t just for the big things, like service to the country or local causes, such as Relay for Life or The Big Event. It’s for the little things that happen every day – acts of kindness that come out of the blue.

“Being a Hokie means that we’re going to be there for each other no matter what,” Kanefsky said. “It’s holding the door open for someone. It’s bringing someone a snack. I’ve heard of so many stories of people wearing Virginia Tech gear and the person in front of them in line says, ‘Oh, you're a Hokie, I'm a Hokie. Let me pay for your lunch.’ I want to do that for somebody.”

Kanefsky found ways to serve while a student. From her involvement as a Hokie Ambassador, a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences ambassador, and as a Department of Dairy Science ambassador, she continually works to help other students.

Part of her role as an ambassador was to assist with student recruitment, which includes writing letters to prospective students and answering questions they have about the programs.

“I've had one or two people come up to me telling me that I’m the reason they came to Virginia Tech and why they chose their program,” Kanefsky said.

When that happens, Kanefsky said, you “can’t help but be a little emotional.”

“It’s a powerful moment,” Kanefsky said. “I like checking up on them so I can their journey as a Hokie. Being a reason why someone chose to join Hokie Nation is a responsibility, and I want to do what I can to make sure they can make the most of their time at Virginia Tech.”

Her service that went hand-in-hand with academic excellence led Kanefsky to receive the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ biggest honor: the 2020 Outstanding Senior award.

Kanefsky was in Boston interviewing for veterinary school at Tufts University – where she will continue her studies after graduation – when she learned she received the honor.

“I burst into tears because I was so overwhelmed with thankfulness and gratefulness,” Kanefsky said. “The first thing I did was call my mom, who is a teacher. She answered and then she burst into tears in the middle of class.”

The most incredible thing, Kanefsky said, was the reaction of the other two students up for the honor. Both texted Kanefsky telling her congratulations and that she deserved it.

“It was just so uplifting to hear that from each of them because I knew they deserved the award as well,” Kanefsky said.

The support from a variety of donors while Kanefsky was a student helped her become the 2020 Outstanding Senior, including receiving the William R. Brockett/Virginia Beef Corporation Scholarship in 2019 and the Robert B. and Martha W. Delano Scholarship in 2017.

Rachel Kanefsky

Rachel Kanefsky

The first in a generation

Kanefsky is the first member of her family to become involved with agriculture since her great-grandfather, who was a dairy farmer.

Kanefsky originally wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, who is an FBI agent. She was set on joining the FBI and getting into forensics until she co-enrolled in college in her junior and senior years in high school.

“I discovered my path when I took human anatomy. It was a real challenge and pushed me mentally,” Kanefsky said. “I realized that I liked working with animals more while taking that class. That was when I knew I wanted to be a vet and when I knew I wanted to go to Virginia Tech.”

When Katharine Knowlton, the Colonel Horace E. Alphin Professor of Dairy Science, approached Kanefsky at Hokie Focus after hearing that she wanted to work with cows, Kanefsky added dairy science as major and subsequently changed to dairy science as her primary major in her sophomore year.

Kanefsky’s parents are supportive of her endeavors – and her father is proud that she wants to join the Army Veterinary Corps – but her mother is adamant about one thing: Kanefsky’s boots are not allowed in the house and her jeans must be washed in the driveway.

“It's been kind of awesome that they've been accepting of it and encouraging of it,” Kanefsky said. “For my swine production class, I took my mom to go see my pigs. She said how cute they were. I haven't brought a cow home yet, though.

“There’s still time for that,” Kanefsky said with a smile.

A defining moment

One of the defining moments of Kanefsky's life happened in between her junior and senior years when she did an 80-day study abroad in Senegal, located on the western coast of Africa.

As an Odyssey Fellow and Honors student, Kanefsky went through a competitive selection process and received $10,000 to conduct a study on a topic in which she was interested – which was creating 4-H curricula for local cultures through the Department of Agriculture, Leadership, and Community Education, working with Tom Archibald, associate professor in that department.

Kanefsky’s project was to develop a new curriculum that could be adapted to the various cultures in Senegal, going hand-in-hand with the department's goal of working to establish 4-H in the country. While centered in Dakar, Kanefsky traveled all over the country and saw what 4-H groups are currently doing in the country. Her primary work focused on a small ruminant curriculum and an integration of pest management curriculum aimed at the middle school age group.  

The week after finals, Kanefsky left for Senegal to begin the defining trip of her lifetime and arrived in the middle of Ramadan. With Senegal being a predominantly Muslim country, just about every restaurant was closed from sunrise to sunset.

“That was a real challenge for me as I observed Ramadan as well. That was my first challenge, but things got better after the first 10 days when I was able to meet someone face-to-face that I had talked to over Zoom before the trip,” Kanefsky said.

Kanefsky knew she could make it through the trip – she was able to get a hot shower and have reliable electricity.

That friend, Fatimata Kane, arranged for Kanefsky to stay with her parents, and they all got up at 4:30 a.m. – well before sunrise – and had a massive breakfast before the daily fast began.

“I woke up with a new outlook on life that day,” Kanefsky said. “I realized that if I didn’t do something that put me out of my comfort zone, it wasn’t a good day.”

That mentality led Kanefsky to an epiphany.

“It was a really big life-changing experience for me and I was able to see firsthand the incredible cultures out there in the world,” Kanefsky said. “I focused on making as positive an impact as I could in my time there. I realized that there's a big disconnect between governmental medicine and tribal medicine. Some traditional farmers are pushing back against vaccines that are important for their animals.

“We can’t show up and say we know better,” Kanefsky continued. “Because we don’t. We don’t know their land. We need to figure out how we can help these people while still having respect for their culture and traditions while encouraging the adoption of some western veterinary medicine.”

She returned the week before classes resumed in August 2019, but came back happier and more resilient from her experiences abroad.

“I knew I was going to be OK when I got home because I learned how to be resilient and how to push through the hard times,” Kanefsky said. “We’re pushed for a reason – there’s a purpose behind it. That’s something I had to come to terms with, but I emerged stronger.”

Kanefsky knows that she’s where she is now from the support of the Hokies that came before her because they supported both the college and of the university.

“I want to be able to come back for alumni day,” Kanefsky said. “I’m excited to participate in Giving Day so I can help the next group of Hokies claim their roles in the world.”

— Written by Max Esterhuizen