Twenty years ago this June week my life forever changed. I was elected to serve as the state reporter for the Illinois FFA Association. College was put on hold. My mom surrendered her new Chevy Blazer to the 65,000 miles I would travel during the year.
What happened that day continues to reverberate in my life. Several times I’ve written about the impact of the blue corduroy jacket. It is an impact; it leaves a mark. If you are unfamiliar with FFA, please skim these for background:
As FFA members gather for their state conventions around the country, an exclusive group of members are being thrust into service for their organization. It occurred to me that although many will receive a handbook of sorts, nothing truly prepares a teen for the freedom, responsibility and expectations that come with the job. Bullet points in a training packet won’t tell you about finding your way on country roads. Or scribbling last minute remarks on a napkin. Or feeling alone in a crowd.
State Associations are structured differently. State officer team responsibilities vary dramatically. And the fishbowl in which officers must now conduct themselves (i.e. social media) adds another layer to these high pressure positions. One thing, though, is true for all – upon election, life moves into overdrive.
So, you’ve been elected to serve as a state FFA officer? Here are seven things you should do.
1) Drive carefully.
Your mom and every other mom you meet will send you on your way with a “Drive safe.” And you’ll nod, jump behind the wheel and head off on another great adventure. I implore you to pause, buckle up, put down the phone, and drive. Carefully. We’re not so much worried about you on the road as we are worried about the other drivers you will meet.
2) Be the person you are in the jacket out of the jacket.
Official dress makes a person stand straighter, exuding confidence. The rather boxy fit of the corduroy jacket can hide both physical and personal flaws, giving a state officer a presence of perfection. In some cases, that perception can get in our heads.
You are more than that jacket. You are flawed. You are competent. You are hobbies and interests unrelated to the blue and gold. But, the ethics that guide you while serving your membership should be the same you exhibit when wearing a t-shirt and jeans for a night out with your friends. Your life is bigger than this year of service, but this year of service will be a big part of your life.
3) Serve more than the members. Serve an organization.
Every state officer says at least once, “I want to serve the members.” And you will, but maybe not in the way you think.
As student leaders, you are the walking example of premier leadership, personal growth and career success. In order to truly serve your members, you must cultivate relationships with the adults who make FFA work. Think representatives of sponsoring organizations, ag teachers, Alumni members, education officials. What surprised me most during my year of service was how little time was truly spent with members, and how much was spent shaking hands with adult leaders.
4) Make your team your family. Love them, like them and walk away once in awhile.
In the surreal moments following elections, adrenaline convinces you that your teammates are your best friends. That you love each other, trust each other and will never be apart. How could you be?! Your team is the best team ever!
This is certainly a moment over which to bond, but the strength of your team will be forged on the day you push back from the conference table, claiming need for fresh air and a walk. On the day of a loud vehement disagreement, you will become family, and know for certain these are people who will walk with you in good and bad times.
5) Resign your fashion sense to blue, black and FFA.
If you haven’t done so already, invest in several black skirts, ladies or black pants, gentlemen. Find a style that fits and buy out the store. Same goes for white dress shirts. Ladies, you can never own enough black nylons. Carry multiple pairs with you at all times. For casual wear, FFA themed t-shirts, sweatshirts and jeans or khakis are appropriate for everything. You can shop when you retire your office.
6) Say thank you to your parents always.
You’ll come home after having spent two weeks living out of a suitcase and want nothing more than to crash in sweats and binge on ‘Game of Thrones’. But your dad wants to know how the car is holding up and what the crops look like. Your mom will dutifully start laundry, make your favorite meal and ask twenty questions in succession.
You’ll be annoyed. Be annoyed one time and then indulge them. Your parents, your siblings, your family watched you go from Average Jane high school student to jet-setting, rubbing elbows with CEOs, commanding audiences and inspiring masses state FFA officer. They are understandably curious. Answer their questions. Share your fears. Celebrate your wins.
You might like to believe you got to this place on your own merits. But the reason you are where you are is because of a support system that holds you accountable to your roots.
7) Know your words and actions will impact someone. You will never know it.
Choose your words carefully. Be patient. Be kind. Smile. Sit with the student who sits alone. Sit with the adult who sits alone. Ask about their life. Empathize. Laugh. Cry. Not often, but when that lump swells in your throat, don’t swallow it.
Be vulnerable. Be authentic. Don’t talk politics. Know when to listen. Know when to speak. Accept that you will learn and grow more during this year than you will at any other time of your life. Accept that this experience is a part of you now and forever.
Welcome to service, state FFA officers.