CORVALLIS, Ore. — As the 2019-20 school year gets underway, Oregon FFA has created a new position to promote and enhance career development events for students across the state.

The association hired Leila Graves as career development coordinator, working with both agriculture teachers and industry leaders to facilitate career development events and make sure they meet educational standards.

Oregon FFA offers 27 different career development events, or CDEs, including veterinary science, agronomy and mechanics. Students compete in front of judges at the district, state and national levels, honing critical thinking and technical skills.

About 2,400 students competed in CDEs at the district level last year in Oregon, and 1,200 at the state level.

Graves, 46, said her goal is to boost participation in events and help students explore possible career options.

“Most of these events are geared toward career readiness,” Graves said. “When (students) graduate, they have more of an idea which direction they want to go in.”

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Graves earned her bachelor’s degree in language studies and linguistics from the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2000. From there, she joined a nonprofit organization, Sports4Kids, working in schools that are in low-income neighborhoods to promote healthy eating and activities.

Graves spent three years at Brookfield Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. It was after they built a school garden that Graves said she noticed a change in the students — taking pride in the garden, becoming more interested in healthy eating and wanting to learn where their food comes from.

“That’s really where I got this great idea about using school gardens as a living laboratory for students,” she said.

Graves returned to school, earning her master’s degree in crop science from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, studying horticulture techniques to increase tree fruit yield.

At Cal Poly, Graves said she became involved in leading younger student tours of the university farm, reinforcing her passion for agriculture education.

“You could see the kids’ excitement, and how amazing the experience was for them,” she said. “Food is crucial. It’s the one thing that brings us all together.”

Graves earned her interdisciplinary doctorate in horticulture and education from Colorado State University in 2014, during which she developed and implemented a STEM model curriculum for the Poudre Valley School District in Fort Collins, Colo. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

Shawn Dooley, CEO of Oregon FFA, said Graves’ background combining agriculture and classroom studies made her a good fit for facilitating career development events.

“She’s got the educational background that we think is going to be a real asset to the organization and a real help to our teachers, especially our new teachers,” Dooley said.

Dooley said the idea of creating the position came up in May, when a staff member who previously coordinated CDEs left. Oregon FFA decided to upgrade the position, Dooley said, to make sure CDEs truly reflected current industry trends and technology.

”We don’t want to be preparing students for jobs that were,” Dooley said. “We want to be preparing students for jobs that are, and will be.”

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