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Boilermaker Special

For more than three decades, Donya Lester has helped Boilermaker and Bulldog alumni alike keep close ties to their respective schools.

Donya Lester pioneered agricultural alumni relations at UGA and Purdue

For Donya Lester (BSA – Animal Science ’81), key relationships formed at the University of Georgia helped launch a three-decade career that’s become influential in the field of agricultural alumni relations across the country.

Lester has worked at Purdue University in alumni relations for 27 years. She is currently the executive director of the Purdue Agricultural Alumni Association and director of public engagement for Purdue Agriculture, part of a career that began at UGA 31 years ago.

In 1986, Lester became the first development officer at the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. In 1990, she was hired at Purdue, the first woman in her position at the agricultural alumni association and the first person from the National Agricultural Alumni Development Association (NAADA) to be hired in alumni relations at a college of agriculture that she didn’t attend.

The groundwork for these opportunities came from Lester’s relationship in the mid-1980s with Louis Boyd, an assistant to the dean who headed up UGA’s animal sciences department when Lester was a student. Boyd told Lester that the university was decentralizing development officers and that a development officer for CAES would soon be hired.

Lester landed the job and eventually found herself at a NAADA conference with Mauri Williamson, a dean who was working at Purdue. Because of Williamson, she said, Purdue was in a class by itself in terms of an institutional commitment to alumni and stakeholder relations. Lester became Williamson’s hand-picked successor.

“Relationships were the key to finding those successful pathways. Building strong relationships with people was the surest way for people to bring opportunities to you that fit your skills — people who know you the best know best what you can do,” she said. “Larry Benyshek (former CAES animal and dairy science department head) got me my first job after grad school because he knew what I could do. And then this new opportunity came about because Louie (Boyd) knew me very well and Louie knew what the college needed, so I had a great deal of trust there, stepping into an unfamiliar role.”

Lester ultimately found her passion in alumni relations. She said the job at Purdue has been the best way to contribute, advance a land-grant university and help solve the world’s problems. However, as someone who didn’t grow up in the livestock world, Lester credits professors at UGA, who took extra time and exposed her to new and different things, with her experiential learning and broader view of agriculture.

“People like Dan Daniel (former UGA Cooperative Extension animal science department head), Curly Cook (also a former Extension animal science department head) and Calvin Alford (former Extension animal scientist who worked with 4-H youth livestock programs) saw potential in me as a 4-H’er (in Polk County, Georgia,) and, later, as a UGA student and made sure that I knew what opportunities existed and how to access them. They helped me see a world beyond where I grew up, where I lived, and to see how other people did things. They taught me to have an appreciation for that, but also to know that if I worked to learn about these worlds, that I could be a participant in them even though I didn’t grow up in them,” she said. “I will always be grateful to them for opening my eyes to a world of opportunities.”

By Keith Farner