By Toni W. Riley
Each year during the National FFA convention, a small percentage of members from across the country receive the American Degree and the “golden key,” the highest level of membership an FFA member can achieve. The organization calls the American Degree the “ultimate challenge” because it can only be awarded after members graduate from high school.
Earning the degree helps members establish themselves in an agriculture career and learn how to set and reach career goals. It also complements their supervised agriculture experience, their classroom education and their life experiences.
The most recent local American Degree recipient is Mary Anne Garnett, daughter of Philip and Marsha Garnett. Mary Anne was passionate about earning the American Degree because she knew the doors it would open.
She began seriously working for her father two summers ago in the Garnett Farms office as part of her supervised agricultural experience. She also worked alongside Don Clampett where she learned how to pay bills, keep budgets, do payrolls and even take food to farm workers.
It was during this time that the teen knew she wanted to continue her SAE after high school and obtain the American Degree. She is now majoring in agri-business at Murray State University.
Mary Anne said the most important thing she learned during those summers was time management, which she uses as an administrative assistant for the MSU Assistant Dean of Agriculture, Dwayne Driskill.
To achieve the American Degree, members must stay motivated after high school to complete the application, said Olivia Clark, CCHS Agriculture Instructor.
Clark, along with 18 other CCHS grads, has earned the American Degree since 1961, but it wasn’t an easy process.
“Back then, it was a long form that had to be typed, but now the form is completed on a computer,” said Clark, who earned the degree herself in 2001.
Her American Degree included her tobacco crop, livestock, a part-time job, leadership and community service as well as total dollars earned for her agriculture program.
Clark said it was the last thing she could accomplish as an FFA member. It was a logical step, too, because she is now the co-sponsor of the school’s FFA club.
When she started teaching at CCHS in 2007, Clark made it a priority to have students complete the American Degree. She had her first student receive the honor in 2007, and since then, she and former Gateway Academy Principal Brad Hawkins and CCHS Agriculture Instructor Emily Taylor have had 11 students obtain the degree.
Four students received their American Degrees in 2009; Jeremiah Johnson was one of them. For Jeremiah, it was the way to wrap up his FFA career.
“It was just the right thing to do,” he said.
During high school, members regularly achieve the Greenhand, Chapter and State degrees, which are prerequisites to the American Degree.
Once the American Degree is completed at the county level, it goes to the state office where there is a preliminary check to make sure everything is completed. It then goes under national review, which is much more stringent. Everything the student has completed must balance.
While the American Degree prioritizes the SAE, in recent years there has been a stronger emphasis on leadership and community.
Mary Anne, who served as president of the Christian County High School FFA chapter her senior year, set career goals, learned life skills and expanded her SAE program — all of the things that the American Degree pushes students to accomplish.
When asked what it felt like to receive her degree at the national convention, she said, “Looking at the other recipients from every other state, everyone in their blue jackets, and knowing that everyone had accomplished the same goal was incredibly special.”
Mary Anne wore her FFA jacket one last time as she accepted her golden key at the convention. She said older members had always encouraged younger members to get the American Degree.
“It’s what we talk about all the time, it’s in our ceremonies …,” she said. “I wanted to go as far as I could in FFA. It took time, dedication and the support of my FFA advisors and parents to get through, but it was really important to me.”
FFA members who qualify for the American FFA Degree:
- Have received a Greenhand FFA Degree, Chapter FFA Degree and State FFA Degree.
- Have been FFA members for at least three years.
- Have completed at least three years (540 hours) of high school agriculture classes, or 2 years of high school agriculture classes and one year of college agriculture classes (360 hours.)
- Have graduated from high school one year prior to the National FFA Convention at which their degree will be awarded.
- Have maintained detailed SAE records, which demonstrate outstanding planning, managerial and financial skills.
- Have earned and productively invested at least $7,500, or have earned and productively invested at least $1,500 and worked 2,250 hours beyond scheduled school hours through their SAEs.
How to Apply
Application deadlines vary by state, so check with your state FFA Association to find out when your application is due.
Applications are due from the state FFA offices to the National FFA Center on June 15.