Udder-ly dedicated: Southeast alumna prepares for SEMO District Fair
It’s that time of year again. Pumpkin-flavored everything is on store shelves, Saturday-night football and tailgating are back in full swing and the ever-popular SEMO District Fair is just around the corner.
Aside from just blocking the flow of traffic on a section of North Kingshighway, the SEMO District Fair has a larger effect on the community when it rolls through town every fall. Its presence in town is so all-consuming, in fact, that many in the Southeast Missouri community prepare for the fair all year round.
One of those planners is Southeast alumna Alissa Swindell. This year she’s the chairman of the Future Farmers of America board for the SEMO District Fair, a program she’s been involved with for 16 years.
After graduating from Delta High School in 1996, Swindell earned her bachelor’s degree from Southeast in 2002 and then her master’s degree in 2012. She said she hopes to earn a doctorate degree from Southeast in the near future.
A native of Delta, Missouri, Swindell always attended the fair as a child. Although she never showed her own livestock, she said she loved seeing all the different animals at the fair.
Growing up, she was most passionate about horses and went into her college years planning to be a veterinarian. A sentiment most college students can attest to, Swindell’s plans changed.
Now she teaches agriculture and shop class at her alma mater, Delta High School, in a small building separate from the rest of the school’s campus.
Her students call her “Swindell,” and she said they know they can come to her with anything. As the students get to be upperclassmen, Swindell said they can have a more joking relationship.
She went into teaching with no experience being at the head of the classroom. Swindell said it was a challenge at first to teach what was then a predominately male classroom, not just as a woman, but as a woman with no teaching experience.
When she started in education in 2002, Swindell said she was one of the only female agriculture teachers in the Southeast area, and probably the only one who taught shop classes.
She added that at that time, there were just two or three female students in her agriculture class. Now, she added, the class is made up of about half female students, if not more.
Swindell said she faced some discrimination from a few of her male counterparts in agriculture education, who didn’t think she’d be around long enough for them to “bother with getting to know [her].”
Swindell described her first few years teaching as “a hard climb” and said she even had to arm-wrestle a boy once because “he didn’t want to listen.” Swindell told the troublemaking student that he could teach the class for the rest of the year if he could beat her in arm-wrestling.
The catch? Swindell got to pick the hand he used. Needless say, she taught all her classes that year.
Although it pushed her to some of her limits, Swindell said she earned her grit through the adversity she faced right off the bat.
Looking back, Swindell recognizes that she never saw herself becoming a teacher, but she loves what she’s doing now. Where most teachers work on nine-month contracts, Swindell is on a 12-month contract and works year-round, meeting with many of her FFA students in the summers.
“I really can’t imagine doing anything different and I miss it when the kids aren’t here or when I can’t be here,” Swindell said. “[Agriculture] is not just tractors and animals all the time, there’s a lot more to it than that.”
When she’s not meeting with students as a teacher, she’s planning for the fair. When fair time finally rolls around, Swindell wears many hats and leads a group of other agriculture teachers and superintendents who help to make sure the FFA’s involvement in the fair goes off without a hitch.
The “year-long process” of planning for the next year’s fair begins almost immediately, Swindell said. As soon as the fair ends this year, she added, the first meeting for the next fair will take place in October.
“It’s not a glamorous job, let me tell you,” Swindell said.
It’s a lot of responsibility, Swindell said, a lot of early mornings, late nights and not much time spent at home. She said the energy it takes to keep going year after year comes from a desire not to fail or let anyone else down.
What keeps her coming back to the fair year after year isn’t the giant turkey legs or deep-fried Oreos, but she said it’s the tradition of seeing kids helping their peers learn together and build their knowledge of agriculture.
“I don’t have kids of my own, so I see that [my students] have potential even though they may not see it themselves,” Swindell said. “If I can make them see even a glimmer of that, then that makes me feel like I have done something good.”