The boom boxes and big hair of 1986 have given way to today’s Twitter and “Game of Thrones.” But through three decades of change, tradition still matters.
Three women who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) in 1986 – and who’ve been tight friends for the long haul – will see three of their children graduate together from CALS at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, May 14.
“I was blessed to have a family farm background and parents who instilled a love of agriculture in me,” says Julie Larson, a 1986 CALS graduate whose son Thomas Larson graduates in May. “If the parents are passionate and positive about what they do, their children will follow.”
Julie Larson met two of her closest friends – Marcy Tessmann and Valerie Johnson – through the Association of Women in Agriculture (AWA) in the mid-1980s. They graduated in 1986 – Larson in agricultural education, Tessmann with an animal science degree, and Johnson with a double major in agricultural extension education and agricultural journalism (now life sciences communication).
Their kids got to know each other at family get-togethers and developed a love for agriculture.
On May 14 – which wraps up a week that begins with Mother’s Day – Erica Tessmann will earn a degree in life sciences communication, Johnson’s daughter Mikaela Breunig will receive a plant pathology degree and Thomas Larson will get his degree in biological systems engineering.
“I wish the college lifestyle could last forever,” says Erica Tessmann, who is pursuing a job involving social media or digital marketing. “I’m proud of myself and of Tom and Mikaela, too. We got through it. I’m honored to be graduating from this great university. And, graduating 30 years after my mom is the cherry on top.”
Thomas Larson, who has landed a job as an associate engineer for Caterpillar in Aurora, Ill., says commencement holds special meaning for the three graduates.
“It’s kind of a crazy coincidence,” he says. “That passion for agriculture runs within our families and it’s nice to see generation after generation involved in CALS and keeping that love of agriculture going.”
Breunig, who will start graduate school at Michigan State University in plant pathology, says having friends on campus when she started at UW-Madison was a comfort.
“It was special that we got to come on campus and already know a friendly face. It’s comforting to know that there is a family friend pursuing a similar field,” she says.
Thomas Larson agreed.
“The ag campus is a tight-knit group, but having friends already here made the campus feel even smaller and more connected,” he says.
Both Erica Tessmann and Mikaela Breunig followed their moms’ lead and joined AWA and Thomas Larson joined Alpha Gamma Rho, the agriculture fraternity.
“The first meeting, I didn’t want to go, because I didn’t grow up on a farm or show cattle in high school,” Breunig says. “I see now why my mom has lifelong friends in AWA, because I’ve made lifelong friends there.”
Erica Tessmann joined AWA partly because of the lasting friendships her mother made.
“They’ve stayed so close and they always do something special around the holidays. Last December, they all went on a weekend trip to New York,” Erica Tessmann says. “I thought, ‘I want that.’”
The moms are delighted that their kids chose to follow their paths through a college that has changed significantly but stayed the same in many respects.
For example, Julie Larson recalls the days when she was one of relatively few women in CALS.
“I didn’t feel like I was in the minority, but I was,” she says. “There were so many times when I was the only woman at a meeting after I graduated and joined the workforce, and I was fine with it. It’s all how you carry yourself, the image you project. Back then, I didn’t think anything of it.”
Today, women represent 62 percent of the college’s undergraduate enrollment.
Marcy Tessmann, who grew up on a 165-acre farm west of Middleton, says CALS transformed her life.
“I was an introvert when I started, but soon I was organizing events, working for faculty and giving presentations,” says Tessmann, who is now president and partner in Hartland-based Charleston Orwig, a strategic communications firm specializing in the food system.
At a recent AWA alumni meeting, Valerie Johnson listened as a speaker mentioned that some of their 30-year graduates had children graduating from CALS.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s something.’ Then I realized it was me,” says Johnson, who worked with several agricultural organizations – including World Dairy Expo and the American Society of Agronomy – before becoming CEO at Habitat for Humanity of Dane County.
Julie Larson works in senior sales development at Merial Animal Health, an animal pharmaceutical firm, and helps run the family’s 250-acre crop and dairy heifer farm near Viroqua.
“It’s really special,” she says of commencement. “It warms my heart. Knowing that they can all graduate together is great.”
Marcy Tessmann says there is a special bond between the families.
“It’s wonderful that they’re able to graduate and move on to great new things,” she says. “When we get together, we’re always talking about our kids. We compare notes. We have a family kind of relationship. I know the kids better than any of them probably know.”
Johnson says this commencement will provide an opportunity for celebration and a chance to think about the value of a CALS education and what the future holds.
“It’s a good time to stop and take stock of where you are,” she said. “Am I where I want to be? Am I giving back to the college and the next generation? We need to think about the future and take a longer view.”
As commencement approaches, three moms and three of their kids have special memories, world-class educations and hope for the future.
“We all found our place in agriculture,” says Breunig. “And we have our moms’ influence to thank for that.”