2 students credit CTE for launching their futures
What’s your major? The oft-dreaded question is asked of almost every recent high school graduate and soon-to-be college student. There is no doubt that choosing a major is one of the most difficult things recent high school graduates face. Many students struggle with balancing a desire to study what interests them with finding a field that will lead to a good-paying career.
But thankfully, that’s not the case for Megan Niewoehner from Sumner-Fredericksburg, and Jaxon Mullinnix from Lone Tree. Both rural eastern Iowa students graduated at the top of their class. They took courses that earned them college credit while still in high school. And most important, both credit their involvement in career and technical student organizations (CTSO) with helping them to grow as leaders, apply core learning in practical ways, and ultimately guide them into fields where they can turn their passion into future careers.
“There are two types of people: river and flood,” Jaxon said. “Before, I would say I was a flood. I had a bunch of different interests, but not something I was passionate about. My involvement in FFA (formerly called Future Farmers of America) helped me to channel my interests into a river.”
More than just clubs or extracurricular activities, CTSOs are integral to high-performing career and technical education (CTE) programs. Student organizations, such as FFA, enhance classroom learning through authentic real-world experiences and provide a leadership component to the education program.
Jaxon, who had no agriculture experience prior to his FFA involvement, became interested as a way to participate in more science-related projects. Through his involvement, he has organized three World Hunger Day events in his community, served as FFA chapter president, FFA district officer and also served as an FFA national delegate.
“I stayed involved in FFA because I am strategic in how I choose to spend my time,” Jaxon said. “There is a lot of challenge there, awards you can win, positions you can get involved with. The relationships I made also kept me involved. World hunger is the biggest challenge and that is what I have focused my FFA experience on.”
Today’s CTE programs have become increasingly innovative. Extending well beyond the development of simple technical skills, high-quality CTE programs increase student engagement through the integration of technical and academic skills in hands-on, real-world learning experiences.
For Megan, involvement in FFA and FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America) helped her to get outside of her comfort zone, meet new people, and discover what she did and didn’t like to do.
“CTE and involvement in CTSOs have really helped me to grow as a person,” Megan said. “My communication and organization skills have really improved, the connection you have with teachers is amazing, and it helps you to see the application to what you want to do in real life.”
Through her CTSO involvement, Megan became interested in the business side of agriculture and family and consumer sciences. She has organized Meals from the Heartland events where she raised funds and organized volunteers to package more than 52,000 meals for those in need. She has also served in officer roles, was selected for the prestigious FFA Star Greenhand Award and attended the Washington Leadership Conference with 500 other FFA members from across the country.
Providing students with high-quality CTE programs, including integration with CTSOs, is the focus of House File 2392 (HF2392), which was signed into law in 2016 to redesign CTE policy in Iowa. This work is also in line with the state’s Future Ready Iowa initiative, which focuses on making Iowa’s talent pipeline a more skilled workforce. Future Ready Iowa’s goal is for 70 percent of Iowans in the workplace to have education or training beyond high school by 2025.
Both Megan and Jaxon say their CTSO involvement influenced the courses they took in high school and helped them to find passion in all of their core subjects.
“There is very little that you can’t tie back to food insecurity,” Jaxon said. “I can use a social studies class to learn about the action to enact change around an initiative.”
Last year, Jaxon was selected as one of 24 students across the country for the prestigious Borlaug-Ruan International Internship, part of the World Food Prize, which provides exceptional high school students the opportunity to work with world renowned scientists and policymakers at leading research centers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He spent eight weeks in Costa Rica where he got a firsthand view of pressing food security and nutritional problems in poverty-stricken areas and had the opportunity to take part in ground-breaking field and laboratory-based research.
“We have high-quality CTE programs throughout the state of Iowa and it produces students like Megan and Jaxon,” said Karen Van De Walle, an agriculture instructor at Sumner Fredericksburg High School and an Iowa Association for Career and Technical Education (IACTE) board member.
This year, the IACTE board reviewed student recommendations from CTE teachers across the state and selected five students to be nominated for the prestigious U.S. Presidential Scholars in Career and Technical Education Program. The program recognizes students on the basis of outstanding scholarship and demonstrated ability and accomplishment in career and technical education. In May, Megan and Jaxon learned they were both selected. They are two of only 20 CTE students from across the county to receive this national recognition.
“I am so excited to be part of something that is so much bigger than myself,” Megan said. “There are so many unique individuals with their own stories. I am so excited and proud to be part of it.”
For Megan and Jaxon, this recognition further fuels their drive and validates their postsecondary aspirations. Megan will be attending Kirkwood Community College this fall with plans to transfer to Iowa State University to study agricultural business with an emphasis on either finance or agricultural communications. Jaxon will be attending the University of Southern California to further research food insecurity and the relationships between the environment and public policy. He plans to study philosophy, politics and law, with a minor in environmental studies. Both credit CTE and their involvement in CTSOs for helping them feel confident in their future career paths.
“There are opportunities in CTE for everyone, no matter what type of student you are and no matter what career field you want to pursue,” Jaxon said. “CTE is about taking abstraction to action. I am going into policy-making, but I couldn’t have been as prepared without CTE.”
“You don’t know how much you are going to grow until you actually experience it,” Megan said. “Being involved in CTE has shaped me into who I am today. You don’t have to be in a big city to find big opportunity.”
Editor’s Note: Megan Niewoehner and Jaxon Mullinnix are part of the 55th class of U.S. Presidential Scholars, made up of 161 high school seniors selected for their accomplishments in academics, the arts and career and technical education fields. As directed by Presidential Executive Order, the 2019 U.S. Presidential Scholars are comprised of one young man and one young woman from each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and U.S. families living abroad, as well as 15 chosen at-large, 20 scholars in the arts and 20 scholars in career and technical education. Megan and Jaxon are in Washington, D.C., this week attending the annual ceremony where they will be presented with a Presidential Scholar Medallion.