year as FFA officer
Alicia Hodnik doesn't use the word "whirlwind" to describe her year as a National FFA officer.
However, it doesn't take very many questions about what her world has been like for the last year to understand this quick-thinking, quick-talking FFA member is constantly on the go, reaching out to students, interacting with business leaders and helping to shape the future of the National FFA Organization.
Hodnik, who turned 22 last week, was named the central region vice president of the National FFA at last year's National FFA Convention, and she will turn over her duties to a new slate of officers on Saturday, Oct. 27, at this week's convention in Indianapolis.
RFD-TV will broadcast her final address, entitled "Paint from the Heart," on Friday, Oct. 26 in its live coverage of the National FFA Convention; the evening's broadcast starts at 7 p.m.
Hodnik, the daughter of Fred and Debra Hodnik and Sharon Montgomery, grew up in Walworth and graduated in 2009 from Big Foot Union High School, where Lisa Konkel and Richard Henningfeld were her ag teachers and FFA advisors.
Hodnik's experience in high-school ag classes and the relationships she developed with Konkel and Henningfeld were instrumental in shaping her experiences.
She met Henningfeld when she took an animal-science class and discovered a love of animals, and she got to know Konkel when she book a biotech class, fueling a love of biotechnology.
Since high-school graduation, she's kept in touch with both of them three or four times a month.
("When I was writing my (national officer) final address, I called them," Hodnik says.)
Although her family was six generations removed from agriculture, she joined her local FFA chapter as a high-school freshman, but didn't start getting deeply involved in the chapter until her sophomore year.
During her FFA career, she completed three Supervised Agricultural Experiences - one in Small Animal Care and Production for working in a pet-grooming shop, one in Ag Education for working with children on ag literacy, and one in Agriscience Research for work she did on a USDA project.
She placed fourth nationally in biotechnology in the National FFA Agriscience Fair.
Hodik served as Wisconsin FFA secretary in 2009-10 and as Wisconsin FFA president the following year.
As she neared completion of her state presidency, she had a sense there were more challenges remaining for her in the FFA program.
"I decided the impact I could have on the FFA program was not done," she notes. "I'd thought about being a national officer someday, but I didn't know if I was good enough."
Those moments of self-doubt might seem an anomaly with the polished, seemingly super-confident image of a National FFA officer, but Hodnik admits there was a time when her self-confidence book a direct hit.
As a high-school senior, she applied for a spot at the U.S. Naval Academy and was rejected.
"I lost all self-confidence," she recalls of that rejection.
In what she calls her subsequent "path to self-discovery," Hodnik repeatedly came back to what she had learned through involvement in her FFA chapter and from the principles of the organization.
As she's conducted workshops and given speeches throughout the year, she's treasured the opportunities to reach out to students who might need the boost in self-confidence she once needed.
"When traveling with FFA, you meet a lot of kids who lack self confidence," she says.
Hodnik hopes that her interactions - even if it was a momentary one - have touched students who might need a boost. Her own experience demonstrates that sometimes it is the relatively small interactions that make a difference in someone else's life.
Focusing on perceptions
In her speeches and workshops, Hodnik has focused on perceptions. Psychologists say that perception is based on beliefs, experiences and values, she explains.
"The experience side of our lives is being redefined every minute," she says. "I talk about how to unite all three things. . . and to accept people regardless of what they look like. . . We grow the most from people who are not like us. . . When we use all three - our beliefs, experiences and values - that's when we get a fair view of what the world is like."
Perhaps as a surprise to many, the staff at the National FFA Organization does not dictate to national officers what their topics or curriculum will be for student workshops and speeches.
"They tell you that when you run for office, you better know why you're running. Each candidate has their own thing," she explains. "Ryan (Best, the current National FFA president) loves reaching the kids in the back of the room, for example...National FFA does not pick our platform. We write every speech, every curriculum. They teach us how to teach, how to use different (curriculum) tools."
The National FFA officers train together during the first two months of their office, but then they largely work on their own, maintaining Indianapolis as their hub.
Hodnik will have spent 315 days out of her 371 days in office (the national convention was moved back a week, so she has more than 365 days in office) on the road.
While officers are elected by region, they don't stay in their region; they go where they're needed based on their availability. Hodnik has spent more of her time in the eastern U.S., Texas and in the West, mostly Idaho, California and Montana, than in the Midwest.
This year's officers are expected to have traveled more than 100,000 miles while in office. All visits, workshops and speeches are by request of the host chapter or organization.
Officers like a family
Hodnik is the only female on the team of six national officers.
"They are so much like brothers to me," she says of her fellow officers. "They are fun, they are sassy, and they challenge me to think in other ways. I think creatively, and for some of the boys, (they think in) black and white."
Hodnik's schedule, and that of her fellow officers, is grueling. Virtually every day, she has given a speech, workshop or both, and most weeks are filled to the brim with visits, speeches or workshops with chapters or state FFA officers or FFA leadership conferences.
She's usually up by 4:30 a.m. and back to her hotel by 10 or 11 p.m. She sometimes stays with a host family, so she's typically talks with them in the evenings until 10 or 11 p.m. after events, and then spends time writing thank-you notes or answering emails.
"If you have a day off on a weekend, you crash," she says, chuckling.
refuel her energy
While FFA involvement refueled Hodnik's recovery of self-esteem as a high-school senior, she finds FFA members have renewed her energy throughout the past year.
"We can wake up in the morning and be tired," she says of the national officers. "The moment you see the students, all the tiredness goes away. You might not have the energy from sleep that you want but, boy, the students, they have the energy. That's how we re-boost ourselves."
Looking back at her year as a National FFA officer, though, Hodnik won't dwell on the days of being tired or the miles and miles of driving between visits. She says she'll remember the moments where she's seen an FFA member get fired up or gain self-confidence during a workshop, speech or one-on-one conversation.
"You live it," she says of the experience. "You live it with your head and your heart. That's what I'll remember. . .
"I've always thought it would be cool to have a camera strapped to an officer's head," she adds. "The experience is almost indescribable. I thought I knew what being a national officer would be like, but it's so much more than that. . . I've learned how to think deeper and analyze a situation and understand what needs to be done. You can see a need, but it takes a disciplined level of thought to see what the solution is. (I've learned to be) analytical through my heart and brain."
After graduating from Big Foot High School, Hodnik enrolled at UW-River Falls and earned internship credits for her FFA leadership experience there. In January, she will start school with freshman status at the University of Idaho, majoring in molecular biology and biotechnology.
Although she admits she's still in an exploring mode, she thinks she would like to work with a large agricultural business or concern, but she doesn't rule out pursuing advanced degrees or a career in teaching.
While Hodnik is looking forward to starting her college career in earnest, she says she wouldn't have traded her year as a National FFA officer for anything.
"National office has been the best year of my life so far," she says, "but everything I've learned and experienced this year will help to make other years to come the best years of my life."