It has been a while since I actually participated in a leadership development program – which is slightly ironic given that most of my young career has been spent behind the scenes of membership organizations coordinating program development. Last Friday, I was sitting at the Panera in Blacksburg, finishing up some work-related tasks over lunch while simultaneously watching the computer clock tick away to 1:00 p.m., our orientation start time. I guess I was feeling nervous excitement… you know, that same feeling you used to get the night before the first day of school and you couldn’t sleep? Your bookbag was packed, you had all your school supplies, all that was left was the “hurry up and wait” anticipation of meeting your classmates. Same feeling, for sure. I even brought a three-ring binder with loose-leaf paper, for Pete’s sake.
VALOR first began when I was still attending Virginia Tech as a undergraduate student in what is now the Agricultural, Leadership and Community Education department. I remember seeing the program announcement and thinking “When I grow up, I’m totally applying for that.”
I still don’t know if I would classify myself as “grown-up” but there I was last Friday, an official member of VALOR’s Class IV, seated among my fellow cohorts. There was a lull before the orientation began, where everyone was quietly reading through the bio list the staff provided. We each have a unique and interesting journey of how and why we came to be sitting around the table last weekend. Here is the cliff notes version of mine:
When I used to introduce myself in college, I would say “I’m from a small town you’ve never heard of called Weyers Cave.” I’m part of the 6th generation, along with my younger brother and sister, to be raised at Maple Springs Farm, which is currently a cow-calf/backgrounding operation we farm-supply business on the property called Cattlemen’s Supply. My dad and my brother (and my boyfriend, bless his heart) farm full-time at home. I was heavily involved in 4-H & FFA growing up and even deferred my first year at VT to serve and travel as the Virginia FFA State President. Once at Tech, I had every intention of becoming an agriculture education teacher. However, after my first (and only) encounter with an animal rights activist on campus prompted me to write a letter to the Collegiate Times on misconceptions people have about agriculture, I realized that education doesn’t just happen in the classroom. I picked up a double major in Multimedia Journalism my junior year and somehow managed to graduate on time in May 2014. Throughout college I was on staff with the Virginia FFA Association, which prepared me perfectly for my first “big girl job” as a program assistant with the American Farm Bureau Federation. I worked with programs like Young Farmers & Ranchers, the Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge and the Patriot Project. The time I spent in DC was challenging and rewarding (and the perfect social scene for an early 20-something), but when I had the opportunity to move back to the Shenandoah Valley and work for Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom, I had to take it. I have loved the balance of being able to work for a state-wide organization while still having the opportunity to be within 20 minutes of the farm.
I love to travel – another ironic trait about me because Slavens by nature don’t venture very far from Weyers Cave (I’m still attending a church that my family has been going to since the mid-1800s). However, I love going other places, experiencing other cultures and countries, and absorbing what I can so that when I come home I can a) better appreciate where I came from and b) apply the perspective I gained.
With that being said, I’m looking at VALOR to be one of my greatest “journeys” to date. When I was asked during the interviewing process what aspect of the program I was most looking forward to, my response correlated to the “Obtaining Results” part of the VALOR acronym. Through the experiential learning opportunities VALOR offers, I truly see this program creating a ripple effect into my future to create positive change – primarily through building professional networks. Growing your network in my mind is one of the greatest investments you can make for yourself because it only ever gets bigger over time. You never know when those connections might crisscross for you down the road.
Being in the stage of life that I am now, I realize that being surrounded by family, friends, mentors and now VALOR cohorts, that choose to live a purposeful life, truly can make a difference in how you see the world – and how you see your role in it.
So in short – VALOR for me is the start of something wonderful!