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Going for gold - FFA helps Students Soar

by Luann Dart

Grant County FFA High School Students
Grant County High School FFA chapter's officers gather to discuss a fundraiser, including from left, Kara Levorsen, Dakota Schaefer, Alyssa Mutschelknaus, Cassie Pierson and Kurt Muggli. PHOTO BY LIZA KESSEL

Superhero powers must be woven into the fabric of that blue corduroy jacket. Donning that jacket, suddenly the shy become public speakers. Zipping that jacket, giggling teenagers transform into well-spoken, knowledgeable young men and women.

Across North Dakota, 4,756 FFA members in 83 schools regularly wear that blue jacket emblazoned with the FFA emblem. Besides the required attire of blue jackets, FFA members share other commonalities, expressed in the FFA motto: “Learning to do, doing to learn, earning to live and living to serve.”

“It’s something bigger than yourself,” describes Alyssa Mutschelknaus, the president of the Grant County High School FFA chapter in Elgin. “There are so many kids who have a passion to be in FFA.”

She leads a chapter of 35 members in the southwestern North Dakota community. The chapter’s sentinel, junior Dakota Schaefer, didn’t join FFA as a freshman, but she quickly changed her mind.

“Whenever they came back from district leadership or state convention, they always looked so happy and had all these stories to tell. It looked like lots of fun,” she describes. She joined as a sophomore and quickly found success in public speaking, ag communications and other activities.

“I initially joined just to have fun. I never thought I would fall in love with it. I’ve learned so many life skills from it,” she shares.

Students must be enrolled in a high school agricultural education program to be a member of the FFA. Membership can start in seventh grade and can continue through the fourth national convention after high school graduation.  

“This means we have students age 12-21 that are taking advantage of all the opportunities FFA has to offer. FFA provides students experiences to gain knowledge in agriculture and develop premier leadership that will provide them career success no matter what career they choose. Our programs are rooted in agriculture, but offer all students, no matter their interests, experiences that help them lead successful lives,” says Aaron Anderson, the state FFA advisor. 

In 1988, the official name of the organization changed from Future Farmers of America to the National FFA Organization to reflect the growing diversity of the organization.

It’s not just about agriculture anymore.

“FFA continues to help the next generation rise up to meet those challenges by helping its members to develop their own unique talents and explore their interests in a broad range of career pathways,” Anderson says. “So today, we are still the Future Farmers of America. But, we are the future biologists, future chemists, future veterinarians, future engineers and future entrepreneurs of America, too.”

“You can do anything you want in FFA,” Grant County High School sophomore Cassie Pierson confirms. “I grew up on a farm, but I wasn’t into the whole cattle industry or anything like that and my main competition is dairy foods. Obviously, I didn’t grow up on a dairy farm, but it’s my favorite competition.”

FFA students participate in leadership conferences, and a wide range of competitions – from public speaking to livestock judging – along with career development events on the local, state and national level.

“As an FFA advisor, I want my kids to do well, but it doesn’t mean a gold medal necessarily. A kid who couldn’t speak and gets a bronze in the creed is a win because they grew,” says Grant County High School FFA Advisor Pete Hetle, who has been coaxing the best from his students the past 11 years.

“He believes in you so much that sometimes it’s a little bit overwhelming,” Dakota says.

“I’ve sat in this room and said, ‘I cannot do this,’ and he’s looked at me and said, ‘I believe in you right now more than you believe in yourself.’ With his confidence in me, he helped me do better,” Cassie describes.

Another aspect of FFA is community service, with local chapters volunteering  to help wherever needed. For example, the Grant County High School FFA chapter helps unload the food pantry delivery truck every month.

“Emphasis is placed on service learning and having a positive impact on their local communities through service,” Anderson says.

“FFA is a huge part of our community,” Cassie says.

Another community ritual is the FFA’s annual fundraiser, with students selling fruit in the Elgin area and discovering community support for them, in turn.

“FFA gets so much support from the parents, the community, the businesses, everybody and it’s so great,” Alyssa says.

“They give it back 110 percent of what we give them,” Cassie echoes.

Personal growth and career success is Hetle’s ultimate goal with his students, he says. And the students point to volunteerism, leadership and other skills they’ve learned through FFA.

Sophomore Kara Levorsen explains her FFA experience as “growing as an individual and learning leadership and meeting new people.” She’s involved in livestock judging and is preparing for a complex ag communications competition with Dakota.

Another sophomore, Kurt Muggli has competed in ag mechanics and farm management, as well as on the quiz team, which tests students’ knowledge about FFA.

“I opened up a little bit more, being able to talk to people a little easier,” he describes.

“I’ve learned leadership,” Alyssa says. “I think that’s the biggest thing about FFA is building yourself as a leader. Being a leader is being able to communicate and talk with other people and see other people’s points of view.”

“My public speaking abilities have gotten way better since I’ve been in FFA,” Cassie shares.

The students attended the national convention in Louisville, Ky., this fall and some are preparing for the Washington, D.C., leadership conference this summer, an experience Alyssa describes as life-changing.

Those experiences broaden their horizons beyond the local opportunities.

“FFA takes you so much further, mentally and physically,” Dakota says. It’s the power of that blue corduroy jacket.