After joining FFA as a high school senior, Bella Culotta found a passion for agriculture on a global level.
The phrase “better late than never” perfectly describes Bella Culotta’s FFA experience, which almost didn’t happen at all.
Culotta’s high school in Ithaca, New York, didn’t offer an FFA program, and she didn’t know much about the agriculture industry. However, that all changed when she had the opportunity to become an FFA member during her senior year, after being accepted into the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga (TST) Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) New Visions in Life Sciences program at Cornell University.
Along with making the most of her short time in the organization, she made memories and connections that will likely last a lifetime and – thanks in part to FFA – is now on a path to pursue a career in global agriculture.
The FFA Journey Begins
In 2016, Culotta started attending courses at the TST BOCES New Visions in Life Sciences program, a full-year program for high-achieving high school seniors from nine Ithaca-area schools. The program enables participants to explore their interest of life processes and the world around them from a biological and social perspective through both classroom and experiential learning opportunities.
The program required her to join the TST BOCES New Visions FFA Chapter, and Culotta was elected co-president by her 13 fellow chapter members.
“Bella is a great listener, which is one reason she’s such a strong leader,” says Michele Kline, agricultural sciences teacher and FFA advisor for TST BOCES New Visions in Life Sciences at Cornell University. “She is confident, well-spoken and capable of inspiring change. As co-president, Bella facilitated many discussions that enabled our chapter to accomplish its tasks and goals, and she was an excellent presenter of the group.”
Having been part of the Ithaca High School Model United Nations club, Culotta had an existing interest in international policy and development, but it was FFA that opened her eyes to the world of agriculture and how the two concepts tied together.
“I saw a huge connection between international development and food security, and I realized how important agriculture is for the first time,” Culotta says.
As a result, it’s no surprise she was interested in attending the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, an event that emphasizes the importance of a nutritious and sustainable food supply for all people.
From FFA to Anywhere
With Kline’s support, Culotta applied for and won an all-expenses-paid trip to the three-day Global Youth Institute hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation in the fall of 2016.
At the event, Culotta interacted with Nobel and World Food Prize Laureates, and exchanged views about pressing food security and agricultural issues with international experts during roundtable discussions. In addition, she met FFA members from around the U.S. and presented a paper on the theme “Feeding Innovation, Fighting Hunger” to a group of 300 attendees while wearing her blue FFA jacket. Culotta says it was a special, unifying experience that she will never forget.
“It was at the World Food Prize that I saw how impactful FFA really is, and I felt honored to wear the blue jacket and be part of this incredible community of supportive, passionate people,” she says. “At the World Food Prize, I began to understand how the agriculture industry works in our country and beyond as I connected with people from all over the world. It was an amazing experience, and I left with so much motivation to learn as much as I could about agriculture.”
That motivation spurred Culotta to apply for the Borlaug-Ruan International Internship, a prestigious opportunity available to students who have participated in the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute.
She was selected for an internship and spent eight weeks in Nepal during the summer of 2017. During her internship, Culotta worked at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional intergovernmental learning and knowledge sharing center in Patan. Her work focused on a solar-powered irrigation pump project designed to improve rural women’s lives in the region.
After coming home from what she calls a “life-changing experience,” Culotta was invited to discuss her time in Nepal at the 2017 World Food Prize as a student delegate with the New York Youth Institute Seeds for Change program.
“I encourage everyone to be open to whatever comes across their path, and to remain a humble and curious sponge of information,” she says. “You never know where life might take you. I never saw the World Food Prize or the Borlaug-Ruan Internship on my path, but I love how it’s all unfolded, thanks to TST BOCES New Visions in Life Sciences and FFA.”
The Future Looks Bright
After she returns from several months abroad, which will include time working on developing farms in East African villages, Culotta plans to attend Cornell University this fall.
She is currently considering double-majoring in applied economics and management, and she aspires to work as an agricultural development consultant and, eventually, teach others about the global food system while inspiring them to get involved.
“Bella wants to make a difference in the world, and I have no doubt she will,” Kline says. “She sees that things are not equitable in many areas of society, especially when it comes to food security, and she wants to do what she can to improve the problem both domestically and globally.”
Although her time as FFA co-president has come to an end, Culotta is a member of the New York FFA Alumni Association and continues to encourage others to join FFA if they have the chance.
“Being part of FFA is a really good way to take what you know and apply it to something because it’s hands-on education, which is so valuable,” Culotta says. “Plus, you meet great people, and you have an instant bond with other FFA members who might even become lifelong friends. There are seemingly endless opportunities in FFA; you can do and see so much with the blue jacket, and that’s not something to take for granted.”
It’s a Wide World
If you’re looking for opportunities to see the world while learning more about ever-changing global food systems and becoming more culturally aware, consider applying for one of FFA’s global programs.
For example, there’s the annual International Leadership Seminar for State Officers (ILSSO), which is open to current and past state officers. Previous ILSSO trips have included journeys to destinations such as South Africa, Taiwan and Thailand, and participants typically spend about two weeks visiting farms and agribusinesses as well as sharing in the local culture.
Another international opportunity is the National FFA Officers Global Experience that takes place each January in Japan and is available to FFA’s six national officers. During the 10-day trip, national officers hone their leadership skills and learn about Japan’s agriculture industry while interacting with Future Farmers of Japan members and teaching Japanese students about FFA and American agriculture. Additionally, attendees get a true taste of the country’s unique culture by staying with Japanese host families and participating in traditional Japanese events and ceremonies.
To learn more about the ILSSO and the National FFA Officers Global Experience, visit FFA.org/participate/global. You can also see snapshots of this year’s ILSSO trip by searching for the hashtag “#ILSSO18” on Twitter and Instagram.
Not eligible for the ILSSO or the National FFA Officers Global Experience? You can also work with your FFA chapter to create global travel opportunities. Consider discussing the possibility of an international agriculture trip with your chapter’s advisor, officers and alumni chapter, and if necessary, organize a fundraising committee to garner financial support.