Editor’s note: The following was written by Melea Reicks Licht for the Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Stories magazine.
Erica Baier knew her story would have a happy ending.
“Either I would win my battle with cancer and I would look back at this time of my life with triumph, or I would meet my heavenly father,” she says. “Either way the ending would be sweet.”
Baier has made tenacious positivity her hallmark.
The senior in agricultural education inspired thousands while serving as a national FFA officer and battling cancer.
When Baier was elected to national office in the fall of 2017, she knew she was signing up for a rigorous schedule. National FFA officers take leave from their educational and professional pursuits to focus on their 12-month commitment.
“It is a huge honor traveling over 100,000 miles coast-to-coast impacting nearly 700,000 FFA members and stakeholders through keynote addresses, workshops, camps, sponsor visits and more,” says Baier.
That’s why she initially thought the frequent colds and sinus infections she suffered were due to jetlag or contact with hundreds of youths. But, when antibiotics failed to help and her swollen lymph nodes hardened, doctors looked deeper and took biopsies.
The results came the day after her 21st birthday — May 17, 2018. She took the call as she stood outside a restaurant between donor visits.
“I heard my doctor say the words ‘Hodgkin’s lymphoma’ and it was like my brain was in slow motion,” Baier remembers. “Then she said ‘a form of cancer’ and it clicked. I thought, ‘This can’t be real. I’m supposed to travel the country and speak on behalf of FFA. What happens if I lose my hair and people think I’m weak? What happens if I don’t have that much time to live?’”
The second half of her national officer term included an intense chemotherapy regimen. She returned to Des Moines every two weeks for treatment.
“I relied on my faith and my parents to give me strength. We knew there had to be a reason I was going through this during what was supposed to be the best year of my life,” she says.
Commitment and persistence were not new to Baier. Growing up in Adel, Iowa, which lacked a high school agriculture program, she traveled every day to nearby Earlham to pursue her passion for FFA. She showed livestock and was active in her family’s farming operation — she and her father built a 50-head SimAngus herd while she was in high school.
But this schedule was a test even for her.
In Arizona, Baier met an FFA student named Jackson. Something about him was different.
“I finally shared about my cancer in my keynote at the conclusion of my visit. Jackson then shared with me about losing his sister to cancer and his own diagnosis with a rare blood disease,” Baier says. “I had this image of leadership as perfection on a stage, but I learned that being genuine and sharing my story with others took more leadership.”
There were many lessons for Baier that year, including that “we are more successful if we fight our fears together.”
“Fighting cancer made me realize I had no idea about the burdens others carry. We have to show up as leaders to encourage everyone to find their place. Sharing positivity and helping youth realize their own value became my purpose.”
Cindy Hefner, program coordinator with National FFA, coaches the national officer team.
“Erica encountered other FFA members who had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and they were inspired by her strength and courage,” Hefner says. “She decided to use her situation for the good — to be intentional in seeking out the ‘why’ and help others cope. She’s always putting others first and spreads joy wherever she goes.”
On Oct. 27, 2018, she completed her term in national office. On Nov. 14, 2018, she was declared in remission from cancer.
True to form, rather than taking a few months off before heading back to Iowa State, Baier squeezed in an internship in external affairs with Corteva for several weeks.
In January 2019, Baier once again sat in an Iowa State University classroom.
“I was a year behind all my classmates and a lot of my friends had graduated. Medical bills from six months of chemotherapy, coupled with a weakened immune system and morale had me really worried,” she says.
Baier’s academic adviser, Mike Retallick, professor and chair of agricultural education and studies, connected Baier with Howard Tyler, assistant dean of student services in the college.
“I was able to connect with Erica in the same way I connect with many students experiencing challenges — through a caring adviser. Prior to her return to Iowa State, Mike met with her to create a plan to get her to graduation. He learned of her financial challenges and knew we had resources to help,” Tyler says.
The support she received was just what Baier needed to face the next semester.
Thanks to the generosity of donors, the college could help with Baier’s situation. She was one of several students to receive financial support from the Harold Crawford Student Emergency Support Fund and the Iowa Farm Bureau/Duane Hinkle Trust Student Support Fund.
“The financial support allowed her to reduce the number of hours she was working outside of class to support herself,” Tyler says.
Those funds made a huge difference.
“I’m unbelievably grateful for the support that helped our family get back on our feet, the ability to talk to staff that cared and to get tutoring,” Baier says.
Supporting her future was a good investment, says Tyler.
“Erica showed everyone she had the extraordinary grit, courage and determination to succeed,” he says. “Plus, she has this relentlessly positive attitude. It will be an emotional and exciting moment when she crosses the stage to receive her degree.”
Baier’s ready for her next big battle — figuring out her post-graduation plans after student teaching this spring. In the running are graduate school, leadership development work, teaching high school agriculture and Christian outreach.