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In My Opinion

Preparing youth for life after high school


Everyone can remember the teacher who insisted that learning history is important so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. I was recalling that history lesson last week as my granddaughter was completing essay questions on a college entrance exam.

One of the more interesting questions was, “What do you think are the biggest issues facing young people today?” It was a question on which we had differing perspectives, likely due to our difference in age.

Her list was probably not unlike that of most teenagers who would include drugs, college debt, social media, personal issues and the like. My list would relate more to jobs, the economy, automation and the lack of social skills today’s youth need to compete in the job market. Different issues, to be sure, but every generation has had a list as it faced the future. Too often, though, we never see the solutions that are right under own noses.

In no way do I discount the tangled and fearsome issues young people face today. I’m happy I didn’t have to deal with drugs, college debt and social media when I was trying to figure out life. Today I may worry even more about my granddaughter’s generation, though, because it spends so much time in front of screens and lacks the soft skills it’ll need to deal with a global marketplace.

Young people say the use of technology doesn’t prevent them from socializing, but employers remain concerned with their inability to put down their phones, be on time and stay interested in the task assigned. Parents expect them to get a well-paying job, get married, buy a house and enjoy life. Statistics say many will find all of that difficult. With housing costs on the rise, living a life like their parents enjoyed will become a challenge for this upcoming generation.

I worry even more about the substantial number of teens who are reporting anxiety and depression, bullying, drug, alcohol use, and abuse as major problems. Serious mental stress is a fact of life for many American teens, says a recent Pew Research report that cites seven in 10 teens report anxiety and depression as major problems among their peers. According to a recent University of Michigan survey, though fewer teens are drinking alcohol, they are replacing it with various illicit drugs. Researchers noted that vaping, of both nicotine and marijuana, has jumped in popularity in the past few years. Plus, a growing number of teens report being bullied at school as well as cyberbullying via text, social media or other digital means – fueling anxiety, depression and suicide rates.

The National Institute of Health reports that nearly one in three of all adolescents’ ages 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder. These numbers have been rising steadily, causing researchers to ask, “What’s causing the rise in teenage anxiety, and how did we get here?”

My observation is that, between standardized testing and a culture of achievement, today’s youth feel pressure to succeed in ways previous generations did not. A survey by Higher Education Research asks incoming college freshmen if they feel overwhelmed by all they have to do. In 2016, 41 percent of students said “yes” compared with 28 percent in 2000 and 18 percent in 1985. But how often do we ask our young people, “What does success look like?”

Someone once said, “A great life is not something we experience, it’s something we create.” But where will this next generation get the skills needed to find their version of success, to make a better life for everyone?

That thought had been perplexing me until I picked up my copy of this week’s Reminder and remembered the old history class lesson that solutions to modern challenges may lie with the resources we already have.

The Feb. 15 Reminder featured FFA, which empowers students to become better leaders through personal growth. The organization plays a crucial role in defining a student’s path toward a lifetime of significant achievements. An FFA poster reads, “Some people dream of success, in FFA we work hard to achieve it.”

So many of us have long looked at FFA as an agricultural program that kids from farms join in an effort to learn more about agriculture.  Today’s FFA programs, though, attract a diverse group of students and prepares them for the next step on whatever journey they choose to follow in life. Students gain public speaking skills, record-keeping and interviewing skills, teamwork and more. They learn about government, how to run a meeting and life skills they might not get in a traditional classroom.

The Reminder article highlighted benefits provided by those who decide to participate in FFA programs, mainly from the perspective of former members ranging in age from their 20s to 50s. Yet, only a small percentage of local students take part each year, with only 670,000 members enrolled in FFA programs nationwide. Of the schools in the Reminder circulation area, only Hastings, Maple Valley and Caledonia still have active FFA programs.

 “There truly is a space for everyone to succeed in FFA,” said Katie (Eldred) Hill, a former Maple Valley FFA member. “The skills you gain in FFA will prepare you for whatever is next in your journey, be that college or other education pursuits or the workforce.”

So why aren’t we pushing more of our students to participate in our FFA programs, regardless of their career plans? Everything FFA offers is something our kids need to know.

“Almost everything I do today had a beginning through my experience in FFA,” said Lani Forbes, executive director of Barry County United Way. “Accounting skills through having to operate a virtual farm for a year, down to balancing the checkbook, public extemporaneous speaking and demonstration skills, as well as parliamentary procedures came from my FFA experience.”

In recent years, we’ve talked about the importance of more career and technical education programs in our schools, yet FFA has long been an essential part of our nation’s career and technical education system. So it’s only fitting that we persuade more of our students to be a part of a program that promotes relationships, special experiences, and the discipline that takes kids as far as they want to go and are willing to work.

FFA is for anyone, whether a child wants to be an engineer, a doctor, a business owner or a farmer, because it gives him or her the foundation of leadership skills they’ll need to succeed in anything they choose to do. The world is a challenging place, so it’s imperative that parents, teachers and local leaders understand their role by helping children take on new challenges, build coping strategies and learn the resiliency skills they’ll need to adapt to an ever-changing world.

Fundamentally important for every teenager is getting involved in an extracurricular activity like FFA. If programs outside the everyday curriculum were encouraged – maybe even required – by our schools, students may realize there is life beyond their digital screens and a richness in helping others succeed.

“Learning to do, doing to learn, earning to live, living to serve,” is the FFA motto that defines a member’s path toward a series of significant achievements that will prepare them for the challenges ahead.

Let’s not let history mark the mistakes we’ve made in the past. Let’s keep making history an admired story.





Fred Jacobs, CEO,

J-Ad Graphics Inc.

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