Glory Reitz — Co-Editor
When the National Association of Agricultural Educators (NAAE) told Katie Bush they had chosen her as a Teach Ag ambassador for the 2022-2023 school year, she had difficulty processing the news.
“I didn’t think I was that special,” Bush said. “I know I have a lot of gifts in the education field and the ag field that God has blessed me with … but for a little while I just couldn’t believe it.”
Bush is a senior at Dordt University, studying secondary education in agriculture and biology. Most of the NAAE’s ambassadors come from large schools like Fresno State University and Utah State University, and the NAAE only chooses 12 students each year.
But Bush is not the only Dordt student achieving national recognition. She and two other agriculture-education majors, Haley Williams, a senior, and Danae Westra, a sophomore, will earn their Future Farmers of America (FFA) American Degrees this year.
Westra’s degree comes with an extra honor: she is one of four finalists for the FFA American Star in Agriscience. FFA members from across the nation compete each year for a chance at one of the four American Stars: farmer, agribusiness, agriculture placement, and agriscience. Only one student is chosen for each category.
“I think it’s very humbling to be a finalist,” Westra said. “When you’re standing in front of that many people, it’s just something that’s almost like you’re awestruck, because so many people are watching you. But not only do they get to see the projects that I’ve done, but they get to see the chapter I represent, because it’s on the back of my jackets.”
According to Gary De Vries, an agriculture department instructor, all three of Dordt’s American Degree achievers are entrepreneurial, competitive, and self-confident.
“I think that’s been built through participating,” De Vries said. “Just like if you’re an athlete, the more you do it, and you have some success, that builds your confidence that ‘I can do it.’… They all set high goals and then have a pathway to get there. They’ve learned how to do that.”
Bush and the other NAAE ambassadors officially began their terms on Oct. 1, serving as extensions of the NAAE’s “Teach Ag” campaign. They will be “the face” of the NAAE at events like the national FFA convention, encouraging students who already love agriculture to consider sharing that love with others.
“It is a whole different thing to go from just being another passionate ag-ed student to one of the 12 kids of the NAAE,” Bush said. “I took my passion, and I went the extra step.”
Meanwhile, Westra is waiting for the national FFA convention at the end of the month. That is when she will find out which finalist will receive the American Star.
Westra has earned her position as a finalist through five years of research, building project upon project as she conducted research examining how blood levels of protein, pH, calcium, and other elements affect dairy cows’ average daily weight gain and overall health. She used her family’s farm in California, Westra Dairy, as a sample.
With so many variables to consider, Westra could not work alone. She called on dairy consultants and specialists for help in clarifying her goals and data. For her third project, an examination of the relationship between protein levels and weight gain in young calves, she recruited her sister and cousin to help. Though weighing calves in the early morning hours proved exhausting, the time with her family helped make it her favorite project.
After building projects on top of each other and presenting them for FFA conventions since her freshman year of high school, Westra feels she has grown as a researcher.
“I progressed to looking at like five different variables in a project and figuring out how to analyze that and… look at it in a way that would allow my data to not only make sense to me, but to make sense to others as well,” Westra said.
Westra credits her high school FFA advisors for pushing her to take up research projects. She sees them as an inspiration for her own career as a teacher, hoping she can use her experience to guide new generations of ag students to success.
Bush sees her ag-ed major as a way to teach young people to care about agriculture. She said high school is the right age for students to get involved and discover a passion, or even get a taste of the field.
De Vries said the purpose of a career in ag-ed is to “set up the future of the industry,” but Bush sees it as more than that.
“If I’ve impacted one student’s life,” Bush said, “to the point where they can look back and say, ‘Oh yeah, I owe a lot of my passion and the opportunity… to develop that passion… [to] one teacher. Miss Bush was the one reason I decided to take that opportunity that changed my life.’ That’s really the only thing that I care about in the end.”