Thirty Missouri students testified in mock committee hearings Thursday at the state Capitol as part of the Missouri FFA HYPE Academy, advocating for and against fictional bills based on real-world issues in front of legislators.
The Missouri Corn Merchandising Council sponsored the academy, a three-day experience aimed at strengthening students' communication and advocacy skills.
"Missouri Corn is the proud sponsor of the event, mainly because we see the potential that these students have," said Hilary Black, associate director of communications for Missouri Corn.
"By simply giving them some more tools in advocacy, leadership and communication and the confidence to go out and tell their story."
Students research agricultural issues and craft their presentations during the first two days of the program, and they present their positions at mock hearings on the final day.
Black said the legislators understand the presenters are students, but they still ask tough questions to give them an authentic experience.
State Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, presided over a committee that heard the students' testimonies.
"The HYPE Academy is a great opportunity for our next generation of leaders to experience the lawmaking process firsthand," Bernskoetter said.
"They are an impressive group of young people, and I really enjoyed helping make the program a success. I'm looking forward to next year."
State Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, was one of the legislators who sat on the committee and questioned students on their presentations.
"It was great to hear from Missouri FFA seniors as they testified in mock hearings in the Missouri Capitol and advocated for real-life agricultural issues," Walsh said.
"The future is bright with these future leaders in agriculture. I'm proud to support and encourage them as they boldly take on the challenge of feeding the world."
With agriculture being Missouri's largest industry, Black said, it is important to train students how to advocate for policy initiatives.
"When most people think about agriculture, they probably don't think of being in the statehouse," Black said. "But there are a lot of policies and regulations that can impact farms positively or negatively, so it's important that those going into the industry feel comfortable talking about them."
While Ethan Vanderwert, a senior at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, felt nervous before he presented his testimony, he said he was confident he would deliver a convincing message.
"Getting to present something I'm passionate about and care about is a really great opportunity," Vanderwert said.
Vanderwert expressed gratitude for being one of the 30 Missouri FFA seniors selected to attend the academy.
"There is nothing better than hands-on experience, especially when it comes to agriculture advocacy," Vanderwert said.
"Having an academy like this - funded by Missouri Corn - is just a great opportunity for youth all across the state."
"By getting to come in here and understand that these senators and representatives are people just like them, it just boosts that confidence that they can do that later on down the road," Black said.