It is pretty easy for me to remember what changed the path my life would go as I grew up. Having gown up in the middle of corn fields with a dad who lived vicariously through his children by letting my older brother start milking cows when he was 12, agriculture has always been part of my daily life. My dad is a large animal veterinarian. I remember riding with him on calls. I remember loving to go to the sale barn with him on Thursdays. Even though I hated holding the gate as he and my brother would tag pigs. And I would escape to the kitchen as fast as possible.
But that wasn’t what dictated my path. Actually, those experiences of growing up with few vacations because we had cows to milk or interrupted holidays because a farmer needed my dad to come help a cow calve or sow have piglets probably was more discouraging to me and my mom to have a career focused on agriculture.
Many still refer to it as the Future Farmers of America, but FFA change the trajectory of my life by preparing me for a career better than I could imagine. By the end of my sophomore year in high school, I knew FFA was my game changer. I was a good student. Straight A’s with a random B for the most part. I was in a sport every sporting season and thanks to being virtually the tallest person on the team, I always saw plenty of playing time. I wasn’t in search of my calling when I entered high school. And honestly, FFA wasn’t on my radar at first.
However, the agricultural education teacher and FFA advisor noticed I wasn’t signed up for ag ed classes. And he asked why. It was my brother’s thing, not mine. After all, my brother had just won the state proficiency award for dairy production as a junior. He was the one that milked cows every morning. He was the one that farmed the carpet in our basement when we were children. I was into sports. And I got good grades easily. I was not going to be focusing my life on agriculture.
But the ag teacher convinced me to try it. So, I dropped my foreign language (which I picked up later in high school so I could get into the college of my choice) and picked up “Intro to Ag.” It was a good decision. I participated in creed speaking and did dairy judging. And may I add, I beat my brother in dairy judging my freshman year when he was a senior. That was a long ride home from the University of Illinois.
But what people don’t realize about that ag teacher unless you have had the luxury of having an ag teacher is that he was so much more than an ag teacher.
My freshman year I made it to the state finals for creed speaking. I didn’t win. I don’t even remember what I placed. But I do remember he took me to pick up the shoes I was wearing to prom. Yes, in rural communities freshman go to prom if asked by an upper class man.
I remember hours with him and my classmates going to ag sales career development events, parlimentary procedure contests, supervised agricultural experience interviews, public speaking competitions across the state in a Suburban we were sure would break down at any moment.
I remember eating more than him on more than one occasion when we would be at a restaurant.
I remember him telling me after I was the highest vote-getter for the officer slate at the end of my sophomore year that I was going to be the president of our chapter. And that people wouldn’t be happy since I was only going to be a junior and a girl. We had less than five girls in FFA in our chapter at that point. And people were not happy.
And the thing about ag teachers is they are always your ag teacher. Even if they no longer are teaching your classes. Mine changed jobs after my sophomore year, but he didn’t quit supporting me. He took my calls no matter how late at night when I was trying to get my state FFA degree. He took my calls when I was debating a run for a state office. He offered me internships. He offered me advice. And he encouraged me to stay in agriculture. To veer from the course my parents and other teachers wanted me to go down that was focused on a major in math or finance or actuarial science. And I listened. And absorbed.
I was all in on ag by the end of my junior year. When it was time for college applications, I knew in my heart I had one place to go. Applied to the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. No where else. I was all in on ag.
And as I look back over my college career where I changed my major just once and then once again changed course after the last heart-felt conversation with my beloved ag teacher, applied to graduate school. In agriculture, of course.
Today, I wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t taken that intro to ag class. If I hadn’t signed up for that ag class. If I hadn’t taken a risk to do what smart kids weren’t supposed to do. If the ag teacher hadn’t encouraged me to sign up for ag class. But, never once do I regret the change of course. To have a career that mixes my passion, upbringing, and impacts every person that eats, nothing else can compare in my mind.
So, if you are wondering what type of classes your child should take in high school, don’t over look the non-traditional courses. The vocational, the arts, the ones that change lives. There is plenty of time for AP calculus and physics and chemistry and French. The book knowledge is needed too, but way too often we overlook the classes and programs that give us a life. Give us something more than just knowledge. These are the class that give our youth wings to be game changers in their careers and the leaders of their generation.
Learn more about FFA.