In middle school, Brian Walsh was a shy kid with limited experience in the world of agriculture. All that soon changed once Walsh donned the coveted signature FFA blue jacket that so many of his friends wore.

As soon as Walsh joined his school’s FFA chapter, he began to flourish, taking leadership roles in the organization and finding a home among the young agricultural enthusiasts.

FFA — which provides leadership, personal growth, and career success training through agricultural education — not only helped pull Walsh out of his shell, it put him on the national stage.

Walsh was recently elected president of the National FFA Organization, a prestigious role that makes Walsh the chief motivator of 579,000 FFA students across the country.

“I never expected this in a million years,” said, Walsh of Woodstock, Va., a sophomore in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences majoring in agribusiness and minoring in leadership and social change. “This is a very humbling experience.”

He will spend the next year traveling nearly 150,000 miles in more than 40 states as he meets with CEOs of major agricultural businesses, interacts with high-level politicians in Washington, D.C., advocates for industry, and, perhaps most importantly, inspires the next generation of agricultural leaders. FFA has helped Walsh come a long way from that shy kid growing up in rural Virginia.

“FFA has a unique way of developing people and bringing them out of their own skin,” he said. “I found a place where I was home and connected with people who cared about me and wanted me to grow.”

The teachers and mentors who encouraged young FFA members to take on leadership roles saw something special in Walsh early on.

“Brian was always hard-working and extremely intelligent,” said Dana Fisher, Walsh’s high school agriculture teacher who was also an FFA vice president when he was in college.

“Over his time in high school, Brian was a member of four state-winning FFA teams, including Meats Evaluation, Agricultural Sales, Food Science and Agricultural Issues Forum. Those accomplishments are a testament to his work ethic and skill,” said Fisher, who continues to champion agriculture as part of the university’s Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results — or VALOR —  program.

“He was a quiet freshman that continually grew in confidence and in his ability to lead others,” Fisher said.

Walsh credits Fisher, as well as another high school agriculture teacher, Sherry Heishman, with encouraging him throughout his early FFA days.

After high school, Walsh was elected as State FFA President and spent a year traveling around Virginia, where he went to more than 70 different high schools and middle schools talking about the organization and leadership.

“The best part about that year was motivating so many young FFA members and encouraging them to grow as a person and a leader and step out of their comfort zone,” said Walsh.

When it came time to go to college, Walsh knew exactly where he wanted to go.

“Ever since I can ever remember, Virginia Tech was the only place I wanted to attend,” he said.

As if seeing his sister excel at Virginia Tech wasn’t enough, Walsh fell in love with the university when he visited it every summer during the annual FFA convention. Walsh has earned a number of scholarships from Virginia FFA that help with tuition.

FFA actually got its start at Virginia Tech in the 1920s when four agricultural education professors started an organization for students interested in agricultural careers. The idea soon spread and there are now 7,570 local FFA chapters throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. The name changed from Future Farmers of America to National FFA Organization in 1988 to reflect the diversity of agriculture that encompasses business, technology, and science.  

Earlier this month, Walsh ran against 41 other FFA leaders from around the country as they competed to see who would hold national roles.

The six-day process of nine interviews is renowned as a rigorous and demanding gauntlet. Walsh answered a series of questions that tested his public speaking abilities, addressed how he dealt with conflict, and measured his cognitive thinking skills.

And while Walsh was surprised when the delegates named him the new FFA president, those who know him were not.

“Brian understands who he is and he knows how to communicate effectively with others,” said Andy Seibel, Virginia FFA State Specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education. “In my opinion his character is what truly sets him apart from his peers.”

Walsh said his teachers who helped him get started down this road all those years ago, Sherry Heishman and Dana Fisher, were overwhelmed with joy when they heard the news.

Now Walsh is busy trying to finish up his academic year early so he can start traveling the country and educate thousands about FFA. He will take a year off of school to fulfill his new role and return to Virginia Tech in 2015 a changed man.

He says he remembers when he was a young FFA member looking up at the older members in their blue jackets who seemed like born leaders. Now he’s the one on stage encouraging the next generation to reach for the stars.

“I hope I can motivate and inspire thousands of FFA members in the coming year,” Walsh said. “But if I can motivate and connect with just one person this year, it will all be worth it.”

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