South Dakota State University's Independent Student-Run Newspaper Since 1885

The Collegian

South Dakota State University's Independent Student-Run Newspaper Since 1885

The Collegian

South Dakota State University's Independent Student-Run Newspaper Since 1885

The Collegian

Conference benefits ag students

‘It encourages lifelong leadership and learning,‘ adviser says

Growing, developing, making connections and becoming a leader are goals many college students have, and 46 SDSU agriculture students attended a conference over the second weekend of November to do just that.

The 27th annual Agriculture Future of America Leaders Conference was a four-day event designed for college students “to work on professional skills, make connections with fellow students and hear from people guiding the agriculture industry today,” according to the organizations website.

“It takes where FFA leads off and prepares students for a future career,” Brad Blaha, the SDSU faculty liaison for AFA said. “It encourages lifelong leadership and learning.”

Blaha has been involved in AFA since 2004 and knows how participation has benefited him and other students. Not only did the program help Blaha get his first job, but it has helped other SDSU students do the same by making higher level connections, and having their minds open to agriculture outside the Midwest region.

Megan Sanders, a sophomore agricultural business major, has a goal to return to her family farm part-time and have an agriculture related job. She did not attend the event as a freshman, but saw the positive impact it had on some of her classmates and she thought it would be something she would be interested in. After attending, she thinks AFA will benefit her in her future.

“AFA helped strengthen those professional skills that I would need going into those positions through enriching my agriculture knowledge, as well as building myself a bigger network through business professionals and other students who were there,” Sanders said. 

Each year, AFA offers competency workshops, speakers and a career fair for participants to better themselves in a comfortable, professional setting.

Kristen Smith, a junior agricultural communications major, weighed in on some of the speakers she heard.

While at the conference, Smith heard a “very motivational” talk about communicating effectively and staying true to yourself. She also had a speaker with a topic on generational challenges.

“[The speaker] reassured us that we are not the problem and that we can be helpful and make a difference, even though there are people older and wiser,” Smith said. “We can go move mountains, too.”

Many students first become involved with AFA through a scholarship that they are awarded their freshman year of college. The scholarship grants them a token to the leaders’ conference. But other students who wish to be a part of the event will fill out an application that is reviewed and accepted by industry professionals from across the country before they are able to attend.

Tanner Mathiowetz, a sophomore agricultural business major, was a recipient of a scholarship from AFA and has attended leaders’ conference for two years. He valued many aspects of the conference, and among them was being able to connect with industry professionals.

“It brings them down to a more personal level and puts them in a type of setting where they can be mentors to younger professionals,” Mathiowetz said. “The benefit of going as many years as you can is that they build on each other.” “Once you get closer to your professional job or career, it’s more skills that are oriented directly toward that.”

A unique aspect of the AFA Leaders Conference is the different ‘tracks’ students focus on each year. Track 1 is specifically designed for college freshmen and teaches primarily professionalism and communication. Track 2 focuses heavily on communication, verbal and nonverbal. Track 3 is centered on global understanding and personal growth, while Track 4 prepares students for the workforce.

“Each track is tailored to each year in school and relates to where you are in life,” Smith said. “The older you get the concepts get deeper.”

Every year, the AFA Leaders’ Conference is hosted in Kansas City, Missouri. It started as a scholarship, but has since expanded to the leaders’ conference, the signature event and additional opportunities.

This year there was about 850 participants from colleges of all sizes across the United States.

AFA is not a club on campus, but Smith is also the AFA Ambassador for SDSU. She is in charge of recruiting students to go to leaders’ conference and the different opportunities AFA offers. Smith has hosted informational sessions and application nights to help encourage students to become members of AFA.

“I’m the main source on campus for students to go to talk about their application or what AFA is in general, and any support they need to get there,” Smith said.

The “institutes” offered through AFA are opportunities for students to gain a deeper knowledge of a focus area of their choice. Animal science, policy, sustainability, technology, crop science and food science are the different institutes offered through AFA. Participants also need to apply for this experience where they will go on industry tours and listen to speakers.

AFA also has a student advisory board that helps to put on the conference, facilitate everything that goes on at the conference and give business industry tours throughout the year. SDSU student Ryder Mortenson was on this year’s committee, and Kelsey Swearinger, another SDSU student, is on next year’s team.

Mortenson says AFA has been a huge part of his college career and it has allowed him to grow personally and professionally by challenging him to think deeper and explore career opportunities that are not traditionally offered.

“Being able to serve on the AFA Student Advisory Team opened my eyes to how impactful relationships are in our industry, as well as the opportunities that come available by just saying yes,” Mortenson said.

Applications for next year’s leaders’ conference are not open yet, but Blaha, Smith, Sanders and Mathiowetz encourage all interested students to apply. 

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