The sun glared into my eyes as I felt the heat of the stage soak up through the soles of my shoes. Microphone in hand, blue corduroy jacket zipped up, I walked out onto the grandstand stage at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, swept my eyes across the crowd seated across the dirt track and waved. “Illinois FFA, it’s good to be home.”
Illinois FFA isn’t just home to me because I wore the state’s name stitched in the back of my jacket for five years; it’s home because people here believed in me since the beginning. They didn’t love me because of anything I achieved, but because they saw potential in me that was worth calling out.
One of the convention volunteers, whom I’ve known since sophomore year of high school, said he’s going to tell his agriculture students this fall that he “knew Miriam when she was weird.” It’s a joke, except somehow it captures a real meaning: I have changed a lot, but in every season of life, I was where I needed to be.
Visiting the Illinois FFA State Convention this year as a national officer was surreal because I saw all stages of myself in my FFA career in so many of the other members there. I met freshmen who looked like all they needed was one excuse and they’d go bolting back to the school bus, nervous to be in a place with so many strangers.
I met sophomores and juniors who were starting to find their footing in the FFA and set their sights on section or state office, yet were unconvinced that they were capable of being elected.
I met seniors who were facing the pivotal moment at the end of their FFA career when they must determine how to take what they’ve learned in the organization and translate it to the real world outside.
I watched as state officer candidates, well-seasoned in their FFA careers yet new to this process, experienced a roller-coaster of emotions leading up to elections. I watched the state officer team of some of my dearest friends retire their jackets after a difficult but meaningful year of service.
Through each of these stages, we grow a little bit at a time. It’s often so subtle we don’t notice until much later. Yet, in each stage, we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be.
The “weird” freshmen? I think we’re supposed to be that way, because it’s the necessary transition point between the carefree days of our childhood and our high school years where we start to decide which aspects of our unique self are beneficial for serving others and living a meaningful life and which are areas that we will continually seek to improve.
The mild insecurity as we begin to take more leadership is a prerequisite to the humility required to continue in those roles. The uncertainty as we graduate high school prompts us to find mentors who guide us.
State officer candidates’ stress prepares them for the heavy load of a full-time leadership role as a teenager and the year of service must be difficult in order to be meaningful. This progression isn’t just in FFA, either; I think it’s everywhere, for anyone seeking to move forward.
The stages of growth in FFA don’t happen because members just simply decide that’s what they want. It’s in tandem with support from people like agriculture teachers, fellow members, state officers and local farmers and alumni.
Looking out on the faces in the grandstand in June at the Illinois FFA Convention, I saw new faces and familiar ones. What made me almost shed the tears that welled up in my eyes as I began my keynote on that hot and humid outdoor stage was knowing that every single one of those faces was reaching their potential and would call out the best in those around them, too.
Miriam Hoffman of Earlville, Illinois, is the National FFA eastern region vice president. She is an agribusiness economics major at Southern Illinois University.