Only 1% of Future Farmers of America members receive the American Degree.
It’s the highest degree achievable in the national FFA organization and shows a strong commitment to leadership.
Sophomore Jose Serna didn’t go into FFA with any agricultural background.
Serna was a middle schooler when he was first introduced to the agriculture department. Even though he was living in the midwestern town of Pontiac, Illinois, he wasn’t familiar with farming.
The agricultural teacher from Pontiac Township High School came to talk to Serna’s middle school about the department.
When his family moved to Bloomington, Illinois, before his freshman year of high school, he decided to sign up for an agriculture class.
“I really enjoyed it,” Serna said. “Never thought in a million years that I would have liked anything related to agriculture whatsoever because I am not a farm kid myself. But I fell in love with it.”
The first day of class, his teacher mentioned how nobody from their FFA chapter had ever received the American FFA Degree award. It requires members to put in recorded hours of work and raise about $20,000 for the organization. They also have to be at least one year removed from high school but have been a member of FFA for three years total.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” Serna said. “It was something I’d wanted to get since I was a freshman.”
Throughout his time in FFA, Serna served as a leadership team officer and as the co-chair of the leadership committee. He helped organize and plan events for FFA and get other students involved.
“A few times we connected with other chapters on pizza parties and pumpkin paintings and fun holiday-themed events,” Serna said.
Part of his FFA job was dairy judging, where milk would be mixed with things like salt or garlic and the members would rate the quality of the milk.
“Sometimes they were pretty nasty to taste,” Serna said. “I think oxidized milk was the worst because to make that you have to put a penny in it and set it out in the sun.”
By the time he graduated, Serna had put in enough of the required work to qualify for the American FFA Degree. This fall, FFA held their annual national conference in Indianapolis where they gave Serna the award.
A passion for politics
Even though Serna didn’t go into FFA with an agriculture background, the degree commends his leadership abilities and community involvement.
Those were qualities Serna had been working on through high school when he first became interested in politics. During the 2016 election, he started noticing issues with American government.
“Just the realization of how messed up our country actually is from the perceived capitalistic view of ‘America is great. America is amazing. Freedom.’” Serna said. “Actually when you look at it not just at face value, it’s not that black and white.”
Serna became further involved with his community by working for two different nonpartisan political action groups.
“Basically they just endorse progessive candidates along local ballots,” Serna said. “So I canvased, hung up fliers, knocked on doors.”
He started college at Grand Canyon University in fall 2020 with a government and healthcare administration major. He hoped to use his leadership abilities to make a difference in the government healthcare policy.
But shortly into the fall semester of his freshman year, he started running into his own health struggles.
Unexplained health issues
After a stomach bug that wouldn’t go away, Serna wound up in the hospital for four days. The cost of a hospital stay combined with the numerous tests landed him with a hefty medical bill.
When the doctors didn’t provide any answers, Serna returned to campus without a resolution. He still suffered from daily vomiting episodes. A few weeks later, he got a call informing him that doctors saw a potential kidney stone on a scan but didn’t mention it earlier.
“That’s just not something that you should forget to tell someone,” Serna said.
But the kidney stone wasn’t the cause of the problems. Jose still had no answers and the illness continued.
“I decided to go home early from college my first semester over my freshman year which really sucked,” Serna said.
After a few weeks of rest, the illness had settled but not subsided. He decided he was feeling okay enough to go back to campus for spring semester. Just a week in, the daily illness picked back up. He couldn’t even keep water down.
“I spent another four days in the hospital, another probably $4,000 to $5,000 in medical bills, and obviously as a college student I don’t have that kind of money,” Serna said. “And the amazing part is I have good insurance.”
After months of near daily sickness, Serna decided to stick out the rest of the semester at GCU. When he got back to Bloomington, he still couldn’t get any answers.
“I went home and had issues with doctors here because they’re like, ‘Oh, we want medical records from Phoenix,’” Serna said. “And that takes like a month, and I’m puking every day. I don’t want to wait a month.”
He decided to go to the emergency room of Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, where doctors had his long-term medical records. After almost nine months of speculation, the staff there had an answer.
An answer in Chicago
With nine months of constant sickness behind him, Serna had a diagnosis: rumination.
“It’s like stomach anxiety, where my esophagus muscles aren’t properly working and aren’t properly pushing food down like they’re supposed to,” Serna said. “So every time I got anxious, the food that was just stuck there ended up coming up.”
The next step was getting into a specialist.
“There was a debate on whether I needed surgery to fix this issue, and thankfully, I didn’t,” Serna said. “It’s just a process of controlling my anxiety, which is easier said than done. It still happens, not every day, but, say, a couple times a month.”
After the year he’d had filled with health issues and stress, he decided it was time for a change. He wanted to transfer closer to home and find a more interesting study program.
Starting at Augustana
“I’d seen YouTube ads about this Augie and said, ‘Let me look it up just to see,’” Serna said. “I saw the Washington semester opportunities since I’m a government major, and I’m actually doing that next fall.”
Serna started at Augustana this fall with government and sociology majors, a medicine and health emphasis and a minor in medical humanities and society. He is also part of the Civitas program.
“Jose is very honest, and he likes deep conversations,” his girlfriend, freshman Jena Joens, said. “He’s kind and super sweet. He is usually quiet unless he’s talking about something that he’s passionate about.”
He’s a member of Augustana Democrats on campus and is the sophomore representative for Augustana’s Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program.
“Jose is very motivated when it comes to things that he wants to do and cares about,” Joens said. “I think that he will do something meaningful in his future. He wants to change a lot of things politically, and I think he will be successful in that.”
Serna is looking forward to his semester in Washington next fall and hopes to find an internship soon that will lead to a job offer after he graduates.
“My dream goal is to either work within the government focus on healthcare policy or create my own nonprofit hospital,” Serna said. “My goal is for the country to eventually provide healthcare to everybody. That’s not a goal to benefit me. That’s a goal to benefit everybody.”