I was recently asked to help judge an FFA speech contest. I happily agreed to help as I thoroughly enjoy listening to young adults present their research and memorized written work before a panel of strangers. Besides, setting aside a few hours to judge is the least I can do to help support a valuable organization that helped shape me.

This year’s contest was void of a building full of chattering high schoolers from around Kansas nervously working through their manuscripts one last time before presenting to a room of judges. There was no electric feeling in the air from teens anxiously pacing hallways prior to their events. There was no tabulation room where FFA advisors would catch up with one another over warm cups of coffee and cold donuts. There was no pizza for students and adult volunteers to devour. This year’s event was virtual.

Some of my best FFA memories were when I’d get up hours before the sun, drive into town, get on a yellow bus with my fellow FFA members and travel to contests and events. Those were always the mornings I didn’t want to hit the snooze button.

On the bus, I’d practice for my contest followed by a jam out session to the likes of AC/DC thanks to someone bringing their boombox. We would all look forward to seeing our friends from across the state and being able to hangout and socialize after completing our contests while waiting for judges to tabulate scorecards. We’d play cards, eat junk food, listen to music and sometimes harass our tired ag teachers. Competing was fun. Building my skills was fun. But the social aspect was something I genuinely looked forward to as well.

I checked into the Zoom meeting room from the comfort of my kitchen. One by one, students from across the central part of Kansas would be admitted into our virtual room at their assigned time to give their prepared speech on a topic of their choice — aiming to be within six and eight minutes — before completing a five-minute question and answer session with the judges.

I’m not sure if the absence of live, in-person stone faced judges staring at you eased the anxiety of this year’s batch of prepared public speakers. I do know there was a new set of unofficial criteria each student had to mentally check aside from making sure their tie was on straight and their jacket was zipped properly before walking into a room and giving their speech at their assigned time.

Students had to be cognizant of their Wi-Fi connections, their audio levels, their lighting, the angle of their computer screens, their backgrounds and any background noises that could potentially derail a speaker. Hands down, there were a lot more that students had to prepare for this year.

While some students presented their speeches in classrooms, others presented from a room in their homes. Regardless, every one of the speakers showed up on time in their official dress to present work they had spent weeks, if not months, preparing.

While it would have been easy to take a pass on this year’s speech event because the traditional environment was nonexistent, and because students didn’t get out of school for the day, and because there was no bus ride where students could bond, and there was no opportunity to mingle with students from other schools while waiting for scores to post. I have to say that agriculture students from across central Kansas still put in the work and performed to the best of their abilities this year even though the extra perks of traveling to a contest and seeing their friends didn't happen.

The caliber of work presented and the number of students competing was not lost. 

While COVID-19 sure has led to the creation of different experiences I don’t think any of us could have imagined a year ago; I admire the students (and their teachers) still pushing forward for continued self-improvement and excellence, even in the time of a pandemic.