5 Hard Lessons Learned from a Year of Virtual FFA
As I shut the door behind me and gave her one last smile, I felt the nerves set in. I wandered around aimlessly for a while, watching the minutes pass by. Virtual FFA contests are a little weird, especially if you are a parent. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to “get lost” this past year during my daughter’s FFA activities. Instead of helping quell her nerves about in-person judging and how to “enter the room,” we’re trying to help her figure out lighting, country internet and chairs that don’t squeak or swivel to prepare for another Zoom chat.
At times I get bummed out for her – nearly her entire FFA experience has been virtual due to the pandemic. As a former FFA member, I believe some of the best parts of FFA were getting to know my fellow FFA members on long van trips to a judging contest or meeting up with other chapters in our section for contests and leadership clinics.
FFA centers around community – whether it’s meeting some of your best friends, building young people to be future leaders in agriculture or participating in competitions and being exposed to a wide network of industry leaders.
A virtual FFA community can only fill the gap so far. While I am extremely grateful FFA has worked hard to find alternative solutions and create opportunities for its members during the pandemic, I believe the very things FFA members have missed out on this year drive home the biggest reasons why FFA is so important.
1. FFA is for everyone.
As a young child, Emily Webel decided she would not be in FFA because the jackets weren’t pink. Even though her dad was an ag teacher and she grew up in an FFA family, she didn’t want to pursue a career in agriculture so she says she didn’t see the need to be in FFA. But then she met her husband Joe, an “FFA lifer” as she affectionately calls him. Since then, she’s watched how FFA has impacted her older children and she says she gets it now.
“This is a place for lots of kids – lots of kids who may not have had a place otherwise. This organization is a place where you can turn your hobby or passion or skill or just something new into a tangible path for career development. We all may not play in the NBA, but we all need to learn how to speak in public and run a meeting properly. We need welders, someone to care for animals and, you know, feed us. Those are skills that are important,” says Emily, who’s raising her family on a farm near Farmington, Ill.
2. FFA opens doors to mentors.
There is something completely hard and completely wonderful about trusting people to mentor your children. When our daughter joined FFA, we vowed we would take a step back and let her experience what it’s like to have someone besides your parents invest in your life. Why? It’s so important for kids to begin expanding their network while they are at home. As parents we play a pivotal role in bringing up our kids. Still, when someone from the outside decides to pour into you, it gives you a confidence that you just can’t get from your parents.
FFA creates many ways for mentors to interact with our young people through competitions, tours, workshops and interviews. Their advice, insight and suggestions for improvement help FFA members learn one of the most valuable lessons in life – successful people are always learning and growing.
Can you experience mentorship over Zoom? Sure. Wherever two people gather – even if it’s virtual – creates a space for growth. But as Emily points out, you just can’t replicate that same experience in a virtual space.
“Just going through pictures of our girls meeting officers at state convention is one knife to the heart that is twisting...we need people. FFA, and the ag community as a whole for that matter, is about relationships and legacies being built. We are missing that portion big time,” Emily adds.
3. FFA builds perseverance.
Eudora FFA president Cody Loganbill of Eudora, Kan., admits his FFA experience online has been a struggle at times.
“I would love to say my FFA experience has been close to perfect after being online for the past year. However, that is simply not the case. Similar to the other organizations I am involved in, communication and the desire to do new things has decreased substantially while going virtual,” Loganbill says. “Every online contest and convention has changed from an amazing opportunity to meet new people, to a chore that fewer and fewer members are willing to participate in.”
Although he is a huge supporter of FFA, he says it’s a completely different experience on a computer screen. Still, he has learned many lessons this past year.
“Virtual FFA has taught me to persevere through hard times. I believe that when our organization gets back to normal, FFA members will be more thankful for the hands-on experiences and members will be more active than ever before in contests and conventions,” Loganbill adds.
4. FFA invites collaboration.
Moving a 600-student ag department from an in-person to virtual environment was not an easy task, says Doug Simms, animal/vet science instructor at Manor ASD in the Austin, Texas area. Because Austin was considered a “hotspot,” they’ve had very little in-person learning opportunities since the pandemic struck.
Although everyone can’t wait to return to “normal,” Simms says this experience has helped him become comfortable with Zoom and has allowed him a new way to connect students with industry leaders. Google Classroom has also been a highly effective way for students to have interactive coursework.
“I really believe that the virtual component will continue to help further FFA by connecting programs large and small to one another and will further empower our young people to be the future leaders of agriculture,” Simms says.
The virtual learning environment helped FFA members become more self- sufficient and discover new ways to collaborate, says Joe Webel, lead grain originator, nutrition services at The Maschhoffs and a member of the Illinois FFA Foundation Board of Directors.
“The state and national FFA organizations have done as good of a job as possible to find ways to provide online positives for their memberships. However, it's a real shame for those young people elected to serve as state and national officers that they are not getting the normal experience either,” Joe says.
5. FFA is a bridge to more.
Sadly, the time FFA members lost during the pandemic won’t be returned. But that said, Joe believes the strongest leaders and top students with committed teachers have found a way to overcome the challenges of the pandemic and have continued to do so.
“Some students have spent the time individually to prepare and compete in the altered environment and have been able to get a positive experience from that. The top 10% of kids that would thrive in the previous normal environment have found a way to be involved and continue to build their skills, even in this 'altered' environment,” Joe says.
He is concerned this virtual environment has not been able to serve the giant “middle of the pack” with positive experiences they would have had during a normal year. For example, he describes the kids that go along for the ride one time to fill out a team and realize they like the experience they received. This discovery can start a chain reaction of greater service and engagement.
“These kids represent a big chunk of our schools, and during the COVID shutdown, they didn't get anything. No matter how much coaxing and urging the instructors on the other side the camera pleaded that ‘We're all in this together,’ they didn't answer the call,” Joe says. “Maybe they lack the support and push at home to be a self-starter, or just need that daily in-person contact with a teacher to remember they are cared for, but those souls are the ones that have been left behind during this year.”
Of course, this is not just an FFA issue, he adds. It will be interesting to see what happens when more activities can be held in person and a sense of normalcy returns.
I don’t know when or if normal will return. But if you believe in the life-changing power of FFA, find someone in the middle of the pack (or on the fringe) you can encourage to get more involved. Take time to check in on them and link them to other kids in FFA, ask questions about their supervised agricultural experience, encourage them to try a career development event or simply share your FFA story and how the things you learned through FFA have made a difference in your life today. Sometimes the best thing we can do is reach out and invite others to experience more.
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