Long before she became head of the Illinois FFA, Mindy Bunselmeyer discovered her career and life’s work would center on FFA. Her inspiration? A classroom, tucked into a great rural community.
“Throughout my education, I had a lot of really great teachers, and they inspired me to be a great teacher,” says Bunselmeyer, executive director of the Illinois FFA Center. “There are exceptional teachers in rural areas.”
Bunselmeyer grew up on a small grain and livestock farm just outside Farmersville, Ill., made her way to the University of Illinois for a degree in ag education and served twice as a state FFA officer. She taught ag in Monticello, and then went to work for Facilitating Coordination in Ag Education, a state project administered through the Illinois State Board of Education. She came to the FFA Center next, first as assistant director in 2013, then becoming executive director in 2015.
Prairie Farmer caught up with Mindy this summer to learn more about how the leader of FFA leads, and how young people in Illinois ag are changing — and how they aren’t.
Courtesy of Mindy BunselmeyerLEADER: “Deep in my heart, I believe in what I’m doing and that I’m doing what I’m called to do. And at the end of the day, if you can’t laugh at yourself, boy, it’s going to be tough,” says Mindy Bunselmeyer (right), shown here with friend and student Leah Ropp.
Do you ever pinch yourself — the kid from Farmersville who’s now head of the Illinois FFA? All the time! It’s a very humbling experience. I never would’ve dreamed I would end up here. I hope we can help teachers do what they do even better and bigger, and help more students. I know the real impact is on the local level, in the relationship those kids have in their own chapter and communities.
What’s your first memory of FFA? My first memory would’ve been at the 4-H fair, of one of the older girls in our county 4-H program. Her name was Debbie Huber, and I looked up to her. I remember seeing her in FFA official dress; I thought it looked cool! My dad said, “Well, Debbie Huber is a state FFA officer,” and I knew that was a big deal. So I wrote her a letter about how excited I was about FFA — because back then, you wrote letters! She wrote back, and we corresponded about her role in FFA.
And then when I came to the FFA Center in 2013, Debbie’s parents, Clem and Doris Huber, wrote me a letter: “Hey kid from Montgomery County 4-H, we’re so happy for you and we’re proud of you.”
Those are the things that remind you you’re with the right people. You can’t place a value on that.
And you saw a future in working with young people? Yes! It started with my parents as 4-H leaders — I saw what they were doing and how they were shaping lives, and I knew I wanted to model that. When I met my ag teacher, I saw how I could do that in my own way.
You’re one of the few people in Illinois who’ve been a state FFA officer twice — why did you decide to run a second time? And what did you learn? When I was state reporter (1989-90), our executive secretary retired and left a vacancy. I felt like after my year as state reporter that I had more to give and could offer consistency. And there was so much left undone because of the transition.
The second time around (president, 1990-91), I learned there’s more than one perspective to a story. To truly serve, you have to see things from someone else’s perspective.
I’m guessing that’s served you well. I learned it then, but I didn’t have the maturity to apply it until much later in life! If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve been more caring and understanding. Today, I still dig my heels in and fight for what I believe, but I hope to be more compassionate.
Holly SpanglerWORKING TOGETHER: Here at the center of the FFA convention action, Mindy says relationships don’t have to be complicated: “Love each other for who we are, and find the best in others.”
You’ve worked with hundreds of young people in ag. What have you learned about them that surprised you? Do not underestimate them. Do not assume because they are 20 years younger than you that they are not capable of taking on the world. They’re creative and passionate. If you put high expectations on them and don’t apologize, they will rise to it.
What makes you proud? I get excited when outsiders see what I see, like when hotel staff tell us how great our FFA kids are. And when we grow friends outside our circle, they get to see how great our students are. I take great pride in what our teachers do at the local level, and what our organization stands for.
Working with students has to be invigorating. It is! They keep you young. Don’t mistake young for hip! But they keep your heart young and yearning to make the world better. Years wrinkle the skin, but giving up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.
Have students changed over time? Kids today can self-teach. If they need to change a fuse in their car, by the time I’m looking in the glove box, they’ve already found it online.
That comes with challenges, too? They have a lot more to decipher through all the noise. Who do you trust? What news source do you trust? How do you sift to get answers? They have to sift through a lot of chaos. If they don’t have a true north compass, what do they do? I hope FFA can provide a grounding force in their lives.
How has ag education changed in 25 years? Well, I used a chalkboard and overhead projector, and those two things are relics! Ag teachers are making their classrooms more relevant all the time, because they have knowledge and information at their fingertips — and that makes their classrooms engaging.
You’ve worked with many teams of state officers; what makes successful leaders? Every team will have struggles. Every team requires someone who’s not afraid to step up and be the perceived leader, while two people are behind them handling details while they talk. They all possess this dynamic where at any point in the day, a different one is leading the team. I haven’t seen any team where one person could do it all. That’s a life lesson: There’s nothing I do by myself. Everything is a collaboration.
In life, what’s something you’ve seen someone else do and thought, “That’s a good idea, and I’m doing that too”? In college, I had a classical civilization professor in Foellinger Auditorium, and every day he told us we were at “the threshold for positive learning.” That’s what I try to do as a parent and what I did in my classroom. Let’s shake off the baggage here and have a positive experience.
What’s one thing you do that’s directly tied to your success? I laugh at myself. You have to be willing to laugh at yourself and the irony of the situation, and just keep rolling.
What’s the lesson you want your kids to take away from your home? I want them to know I love them. And that the God who created them is greater than anything else.
On growing up in 4-H and rural communities:
"I feel very lucky that was my upbringing.”
On the small ag world:
“Lynn [Granby] Kimpling was a state officer, and she came to my high school and got me interested in FFA. Then my first year as executive director, her son Kolton Kimpling was state officer! We truly are an ag education and FFA family.”
“They made me think of the world on the larger scale and made me want to give back to where it all began.”
On working together:
“I tell our officers: You never know when you will see them and interact with them again. Always be kind. Everybody deals with stress. Vent and help them get past it.”
On recovering from mistakes:
“Own it, don’t make excuses, get the job done.”
BUNSELMEYER IN BRIEF
Truck? 1970s blue Ford SuperCab
Tractor? My dad’s Case and my father-in-law’s John Deere
Livestock? My niece and nephew show sheep — and those sheep show people are fun!
Team? Fighting Illini
Best decision? Marrying Mark Bunselmeyer
Technology? Label maker. I fricking love that thing!
Book? “Exodus,” by Leon Uris
Best advice? “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Family? Husband Mark farms near Decatur; Gehrig, 14, Emery, 12