My Story – Elizabeth Espino (10/15/2021)

This is the fifth Friday Footnote celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. Our guest columnist is Elizabeth Espino. Here is her story.

Figure 1. Elizabeth Espino

I am a first-generation Mexican American. I am from La Grange, North Carolina. My parents are Agustin Espino and Jessica Real Romero, and I am the oldest sibling of my parents’ three children. My younger sister is Melissa Espino, who just started her freshman year of high school, and my younger brother Caleb Espino who just started middle school.

My family and I did not grow up in an agriculture background or live on a farm, but my dad works as a Supervisor at Worthington Farms [wholesale nursery production]. My mom works at my former high school as the school’s data manager. I graduated from North Lenoir High school in June of 2020.

My family and I are members of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church where I served as a Sunday School teacher for two years in high school. I also was part of Girl Scout Troop 4186 and was the first Girl Scout from my troop to graduate high school.

I joined my first agriculture education class during the spring semester of my sophomore year. My mother, who works as the data manager at North Lenoir actually changed my schedule the summer before my sophomore year, so I could take an agriculture class because she believed it would be an “easy A+ class.” Little did she know that by changing my schedule to take Agriscience Applications Honors with Mr. Spence that she would in return help shape my future. My initial thoughts before taking the class were that I would be learning about soil, cows, and plants. Although there is truth to that statement, I ended up learning so much more about myself and the future I wanted to have.

When I joined the class, I knew that I wanted to become a physician assistant when I grew up. I remember going to class that first week being very unsure if I would continue the class. Since I didn’t come from an agriculture background, I found the class unappealing. That was until my teacher asked us, “Do you know where your food comes from?” and I quickly answered “Walmart.” To my surprise, I was told that I was wrong, and my advisor proceeded to show us a video that talked about the “9 billion problem” that is supposed to happen by the year 2050. After getting the question wrong and watching this video as a class, I was hooked and my interest in the agriculture industry grew. I knew I wanted to be a part of the “9 billion solution” one way or another.

I did my best to take as many agriculture classes as I could in high school, and I took Animal Science, Agricultural Mechanics, Advanced Studies, and my favorite, Agriscience Applications. I didn’t become an active FFA member until my junior year of high school. I was fortunate to have been elected to serve as the chapter secretary at the end of my sophomore year and was then elected to serve as chapter president during my senior year.

I competed in numerous CDEs including Agronomy, Meats, Land Judging, Job Interview, Intro to Horticulture, Floriculture, and just recently I won first place in the state Prepared Public Speaking CDE. I quickly fell in love with FFA, always going on field trips, helping at chapter events, and constantly seeking out more FFA events that had workshops for me to attend.

My SAEs throughout high school has varied from raising and showing my school hogs, working at a farm, or recently my agriculture education SAE, where I have been working with the North Carolina Extension and Agromedicine Institute. As part of my SAE, I have used my bilingual skills to translate documents, videos, and other information for our migrant farmworker communities in North Carolina to help them stay safe on the farm during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am working to spread general safety awareness for the farming community and help the migrant and farming community learn more about the COVID-19 vaccination.

Being a first-generation Mexican American comes with a lot of struggles, both mentally and physically. I always felt out of place growing up, or as one of my favorite quotes from the Selena movie says, “Not Mexican enough for the Mexicans and not American enough for the Americans.” That line right there kind of summed up my whole childhood. Growing up I was always quiet, well behaved in school, and got good grades, graduating number eight out of my class. Always feeling like the odd man out wired me to be very competitive and very determined because I felt like I always had to prove myself to others. Whenever I saw something I wanted to achieve, I would always work hard to achieve it.

However, being a first-generation Mexican American, I didn’t always have the same resources that my peers did. My parents and I were unaware of all the opportunities I had in my community to become more involved, because they simply didn’t know or because my parents didn’t have the same resources growing up. I have always called myself the “guinea pig” of the family because I was my parents’ first child. They learned a lot with me, including but not limited to learning how to fill out college applications, FAFSA, getting involved in the community, etc. And although I used to think this was unfair, I am glad I was the “guinea pig.”

Becoming a first-generation college student, I have taught my parents about applying for college and navigating financial and community resources. When my siblings, cousins, or even other family friends who will be first-generation college students are ready to apply, my parents and I can help them out.

Serving as the North Carolina FFA State President for the 2021-2022 school year has been amazing. Being the first Hispanic State President of North Carolina FFA I do not carry my position lightly, knowing that I am helping make a positive difference in our organization, as well as serving as a voice for those who often feel like their voice isn’t normally heard. I am so thankful, excited, and blessed to have been given this amazing opportunity to be one out of six who get to represent over 24,000 FFA members across North Carolina. I have only been in the office for three months, but my teammates and I have already visited so many schools and members across NC.

Figure 2. The 2021-22 North Carolina FFA Officer Team

My teammates and I met for the first time in person at the North Carolina FFA Center at White Lake, where we stayed for a whole week for Base Camp. I was also very fortunate to travel to Washington D.C. for the State Officer Summit with my teammate Haylee. Even though it may be tiring at times, I get so excited when I get the opportunity to hang out with our FFA members. I love getting to hear their stories about how they joined FFA or stories about their lives. I am so excited to see our members grow throughout this year.

With our fall CDEs coming up around the corner, I am rooting for all our members. I have heard so many students talk about how much they have been practicing for Vet Science, Land Judging, and Livestock Evaluation.

Overall, my experience as a State Officer could not be any better. I have family, friends, and my high school advisors who call and text me to check up on me all the time. I also have an amazing support group through the NC FFA state staff who are constantly supporting and encouraging my teammates and me. I have been very fortunate to have amazing teammates that, although we may have only known each other for three months, I can confidently call them my family. I’m excited to see where this year of service continues to take us.

I am currently a sophomore at North Carolina State University majoring in Agriculture Education with a minor in Agribusiness Management. After getting my bachelor’s degree I plan to go back to NC State to get my Master’s Degree in Agriculture Education. I hope to travel more after my year of service either in a study abroad program or taking some time to myself to explore more about our world. After getting my Master’s Degree I hope to become an agriculture educator. I am excited to one day have my own class and be able to educate the next generation of agriculture leaders and make a positive impact on their lives like my advisors did for me.

I believe that the first steps to having more diverse and inclusive agriculture education and FFA programs starts with the agriculture educators and FFA advisors. If I think about one of the main reasons why I felt welcomed within the FFA, I would say it was that my advisors made sure to make me feel included and invited me to participate in FFA events.

So, I am challenging all advisors who are reading this to give all your students a chance. – a chance for them to show up. Invite them to join a CDE, an opportunity to attend an FFA field trip, or even to apply to become a chapter officer. From my previous experiences in FFA or education, I know how it feels to sometimes feel like I have been overlooked when compared to my classmates. Make sure you are treating them all the same, no matter the skin color or background. We love to think that we don’t pick favorites or are biased, but we are humans; we all have internal biases whether we recognize it or not. Make them feel as if they are part of a team.

I remember my advisor inviting me to join the Tool ID team my sophomore year, and although I could not participate due to my conflicting schedules, he still made me feel valued when I said no and encouraged me to participate in my chapter through other means. If you only give them a chance to be a part of your FFA family and make them feel loved and valued, that is when you will see the most significant change.

No, we cannot change everyone’s views on others, but taking the first steps will allow our minority students to feel included in the National FFA Organization. Hopefully, this stereotype of what the typical FFA member should look like will go away one day. But until then, we have to do better about being inclusive to all. Hopefully, this will be an issue that through the help of agriculture educators, state staff, and FFA members, we will one day be able to solve. This is a very uncomfortable topic for many people that they don’t like to have, but if we don’t talk about it now, when will it be discussed?

I say give all your students a chance. Show up for them. I would even suggest talking to your minority students to see what you, as state staff or educators, can do to make sure you are including them in the conversation, making sure what you are teaching is inclusive of all students. If it is giving them FFA resources in another language for their parents to better understand what the National FFA Organization is, then do it.

From my personal experiences, I have never personally been offended by having an open conversation with my agriculture teachers or state staff about my background and culture. I want to help them understand my experiences in FFA and how I grew up so they can also take that into account when they are trying to help others feel included. It’s time to have those hard conversations with others to finally make a positive change.