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The COVID-19 Class: Born a Boilermaker senior persists to find her fit at Purdue

About the feature

The “COVID-19 Class” is a mini-series documenting the experiences of three members of the Class of 2024 from the College of Agriculture. Though they were presented with a distinct set of challenges as they began their collegiate careers, these students found community, excelled in their studies, and became leaders. Learn about the obstacles they faced, the growth they have seen in themselves, some of their favorite memories along the way, and what's next for them.

Kayla Grennes, senior majoring in plant genetics, breeding and biotechnology in agronomy

Kayla Grennes, senior stands in greenhouse with cap and gown."I was born to be a Boilermaker," says Kayla Grennes, a senior majoring in plant genetics, breeding and biotechnology in agronomy. As the daughter of two Purdue alumni, Grennes explains, " Purdue was the plan all along." However, she never could have imagined the way her story would begin.

With her admittance to her "dream college," Grennes was finishing her senior year in Battle Creek, Michigan, making plans for all that was to come when everything changed in March 2020.

"I remember the day clearly, as we all do. My family planned to go to the Big Ten tournament to cheer on Purdue. As we were preparing to leave, we learned that the tournament had been canceled. "

As summer plans continued to change, one thing that remained the same was Grennes' excitement about moving to West Lafayette as an official Boilermaker. Grateful for a university that had planned how to keep students safe during the pandemic, Grennes remembers settling into college life.

"Most of my classes were completely online. Some of my introductory classes were in-person, but it was challenging when you're socially distanced and have your mask on the whole time. Making that first connection with someone was awkward." Grennes and her classmates adapted to taking most of their courses virtually and how to learn best in that environment. She appreciated her professors providing tools to help her succeed.

For Grennes, the biggest challenge was finding the community she had always dreamed of having during college. She recalls experiencing an emotion she had not expected in college: loneliness. But she was determined to find her fit.

Both of her parents were members of Fraternity, Sorority, and Cooperative Life, so she decided to rush her freshman year. "I was able to join a sorority, and honestly, that has made Purdue what it is for me. My sorority sisters are my community, and freshman year would have been much more difficult without them. They were always there. They're still always there."

As regulations changed over time, so did opportunities.  

During her sophomore year, she joined Professor Ying Li’s lab in the department of horticulture and landscape architecture focused on molecular genetics and epigenetics. She has worked in the lab for the past two years and has grown in her understanding and love for plant science. She also joined the Paint Crew to cheer on the Boilermakers and expanded her cultural understanding through a study abroad trip to Ireland.

"I have been able to experience what my parents had and what I hoped I would find. The Purdue community is special. Everybody wants to help each other, no matter if they're from different backgrounds, majors, different beliefs. We root for each other.”


Grennes used that “Boilermaker spirit” to find ways to give back. She served on the Purdue Ag Week Task Force and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at Purdue. She also completed internships at Co-Alliance as a crop scout, Corteva working in actives and product technology, and Ball Horticulture in seed breeding.

Through all the challenges that came with starting college during a pandemic, Grennes has many lessons she will take with her. "I've learned the importance of being flexible and knowing that plans will continually change. I've grown to know that if I want something to happen and I set a goal, the path could be different than I anticipated, but that's okay. I've learned the importance of finding a community to get you through hard times and the value of being that for others as well."

As Grennes starts her next chapter as a PhD student in the applied plant science program at the University of Minnesota, she remarks that it's not just the big moments that she will remember most, but all the tiny moments that made it special to be a Boilermaker.

"It’s the little moments like bumping into friends, grabbing a coffee to study, or cheering with the Paint Crew when Purdue makes a good shot. It's a lot of things at once. The small moments are my favorite memories and the biggest things that I will remember and take with me forever."

Looking back, Grennes has no regrets

Student in cap and gown in greenhouse at Purdue

"Purdue was my dream school. I risked it all, and I'm glad I did. Even if I knew that a pandemic was still going to happen and all that would bring, I wouldn’t change a thing because it made my experience what it was. To be a Boilermaker, I would do it all over again."

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