Creating Impact Without Boundaries Through National 4-H Council

Have you ever wondered about the journey that your dollar takes when you give to National 4-H Council? For instance: how does a dollar donated at the national level impact the 4-H club in your hometown? Or, in what ways does your gift shape the 4-H experience for millions of young people?

First, let's start with what Council does so you can be confident about where your support goes.

National 4-H Council supports 4-H at all levels. If you've participated in a 4-H program, you know they're one-of-a-kind. We work with our land-grant university partners across the country to give young people opportunities they can't find anywhere else: opportunities for kids to discover their spark, form lasting relationships, and participate fully in the world around them. When you make a gift to Council, you're building 4-H's capacity nationwide and ensuring we can continue to grow to serve more kids.

Here are just a few ways your generosity to National 4-H Council makes a difference. We support positive youth development programming that:

Fosters Relationships

Young people are introduced to caring mentors and friends at a time when it matters most.

"We have a little girl in the 4-H Youth & Families with Promise Club who told her mentor that she doesn't have any friends. The mentor told the 4-H staff member about what the little girl had said, so the coordinator introduced her to some girls in the club and told them to play a get-to-know-you game. The next day, the little girl's mom called the coordinator to report how excited her daughter was that she made new friends at 4-H. Since starting the program, her mother shared that she is much happier and more confident."

- A 4-H Volunteer

Builds New Skills

Kids learn life skills by overcoming personal challenges, discovering their passions and building their confidence.

"Because I have ADHD and high-functioning autism, I went to speech therapy to learn how to articulate what I wanted to say instead of rambling. 4-H was how I actually got to practice getting up in front of a group of people. I would not have done that before 4-H. It forced me to open myself up to those types of experiences and I learned that it wasn't as scary as I may have thought (and I actually was decent at it)!"

- A 4-H Youth

Brings Kids Together

Our national positive youth development events - the Summit series and Citizenship Washington Focus - bring together young people from across the country to focus on areas of growth that will benefit them, their communities, our country, and our world.

"I received a phone call from a mother who was almost in tears. Her daughter had been struggling with bullying and a lack of interest in projects she used to enjoy. But after she attended the National 4-H Youth Summit on Agri-Science, her mother noticed a significant change. It was the first thing she had been really excited about in some time. She told us that her daughter passionately talks about the experience everywhere she goes and was even invited to visit an agritourism farm to share her knowledge with 150 elementary school youth - teaching them the importance of pollinators and their habitats. She thanked us for such a positive experience and for helping her daughter get back on a positive life track. She can't wait to see all the great things that will come from being an ambassador, and her daughter is now considering a career in teaching as she is enjoying it so much."

- A 4-H Agent

Tackles Key Issues

We make our programs scalable so that 4-H'ers can make a real difference in their communities while addressing larger national issues. For example, here's how our 4-H Tech Changemakers program, which gives teens the resources to bridge the digital divide, created a brighter future for a struggling mom in Mississippi:

"I am a mother of three boys, and we entered a domestic abuse center in July 2021. I know that I must find work to be able to provide for myself and my boys. The center is working with the 4-H Tech Changemakers Program and encouraged me to take part in it. At first, I said 'no' because I didn't think a teenager could teach me anything. But that all changed after the first session. They were great - so very helpful and so kind. The team is helping me develop the skills I need to research and apply for jobs."

- A Community Member

Reaches Vulnerable Populations

We meet urgent needs across the 4-H network. For example, National 4-H Council created an emergency assistance fund at the onset of the pandemic so that our Cooperative Extension System partners could ask for help where they needed it most. Nearly $300,000 was awarded through 24 grants - reaching 17,395 young people with virtual camps, activity kits, gardening workshops, and more.

"We all learned so much [through virtual camp] and didn't want it to end! I loved the mix of live events, activities at home, and support videos. You guys proved COVID won't ruin camp plans. My daughter is medically fragile…and she was THRILLED to be able to join in on all the fun without COVID concerns."

- A 4-H Parent

That's just a glimpse of your giving at work. Stories like these happen every day within the 4-H family because of incredible young people and the dedicated educators who inspire them, the caring mentors who encourage them, and the generous donors (like you!) who support them.

Just like the youth we serve, your gift to National 4-H Council is limitless in how it can impact the world.

Meet the people of 4-H who are breaking down barriers, creating change, and inspiring others.

As educators, community activists, industry experts, innovators, and leaders, these 4-H trailblazers are paving the way for generations to come. Get to know this month's trailblazing youth, alumni, and supporters who have created change and opportunity within their communities and bring the 4-H mission to life.

Featured 4-H Trailblazers

Jesse Lee Eller

CEO & Founder, Studio 5 - Learning + Development, Inc.

As CEO and Founder of a Certified LGBT Business Enterprise® by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, he understands what it means to honor and value the diversity of people and of thought. Through his leadership and guidance, Studio 5 empowers people to do the best work of their lives through meaningful thought partnerships with the world’s leading human-centered organizations. In 2015, Jesse founded and launched the Cultivating Change Foundation - the largest organization globally that focuses on valuing and elevating LGBT agriculturists.

Marcus Hollan

Chief People Officer, Studio 5 - Learning + Development, Inc.

With a passion for people development and organizational change, Marcus served as the Executive Director of the Cultivating Change Foundation, a 501(c)(3) aimed at valuing and elevating LGBT agriculturists through advocacy, education, and community. At Studio 5, his focus is on building the ecosystem to attract and retain top tier talent by creating the conditions that produce a meaningful employee experience. He believes that human capital is the most valuable asset to have and that the development of people in an organization is vital to its success.

Ann Veneman

Former Secretary of Agriculture, USDA

Once named one of Forbes most powerful women, Ann Veneman has earned her place in history, both nationally and internationally. Veneman’s first notable role was serving as the Secretary of Agriculture, where she is the only woman to date to hold the position. In 2005, she was appointed as the fifth executive director of UNICEF, where she advocated for solving global hunger and children’s and women’s rights.

Dr. Carrie Castille

Director, USDA-NIFA

From Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University to state director of the Louisiana Rural Development, Dr. Carrie Castille has spent her career being a champion for education, agriculture, and rural issues. After several roles and a number of Louisiana state honors— she was the first woman inducted into the University of Louisiana Lafayette College of Engineering Hall of Distinction—today, Dr. Castille is the first woman to serve as director of USDA-NIFA in a non-acting capacity.


Congresswoman Terri Sewell

US Representative, Alabama

Congresswoman Terri Sewell credits her experiences in Alabama 4-H and a number of mentors for investing in her. Among her many accomplishments, she is notably the first woman elected to Congress in Alabama and the first Black woman to serve in the Alabama Congressional Delegation. Today, she uses her platform to advocate for voter rights and equality.

Jennifer Sirangelo

President & CEO, National 4-H Council

As the first female to serve as president and CEO at National 4-H Council, she has been named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business and recipient of the Female Executive of the Year Award.

Landmark $50 Million Gift to 4-H from MacKenzie Scott Is an Investment in America’s Youth

I am pleased to share this official statement on behalf of National 4-H Council.

As partner to Cooperative Extension's 4-H program, we are pleased to share the news of a transformational, $50 million gift to National 4-H Council from writer and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Because of 4-H's expansive reach into every US county, parish, and territory, this investment will support positive youth development for millions of kids and families. Amid the serious challenges affecting our youth-from a national mental health crisis to widening opportunity gaps-the skills, confidence, and resilience young people develop through 4-H programs are essential.

"This extraordinary gift is a rare and special occurrence," shares Krysta Harden, National 4-H Council Board Chair and President and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. "With such a significant gift comes great responsibility. We will engage our stakeholders to ensure these resources lift the diverse voices of young people and create equitable and inclusive opportunities for this generation, and many future generations to come."

This gift builds upon the dedicated efforts of thousands of local Cooperative Extension 4-H educators, more than 500,000 volunteers, and millions of 4-H youth, alumni, and donors. It leverages decades of public investment from counties, states, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture at USDA. And it will sustain 4-H's commitment to ensuring all young people-regardless of their background or beliefs-are empowered with the skills to lead for a lifetime. "Together, we have built a life-changing movement that serves six million youth each year," observes Jennifer Sirangelo, President and CEO of National 4-H Council. "Fueled by this historic investment, we will make even greater progress toward our shared vision: providing all young people with access to opportunity."

We extend profound gratitude to MacKenzie Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett-not only for the largest single gift in 4-H's 120-year history-but also for their belief in the strengths and influence of young people to improve the world around us.

Afterschool programs provide the perfect setting for students to engage in STEM learning. According to the newly released America After 3PM special report, STEM learning in afterschool programs is on the rise, but inequities remain. Lights On Afterschool is a great opportunity for programs to showcase their STEM curriculum!

In its 22nd year, Lights On Afterschool is a nationwide celebration of afterschool programs, students, and staff. In a typical year, one million people come together for 8,000 Lights On events across the country. There are plenty of ways to incorporate STEM learning into Lights On Afterschool events. One of those ways is by celebrating two events in one, and making your Lights On Afterschool event a 4-H STEM Challenge event!

This year’s 4-H STEM Challenge, Galactic Quest, incorporates physics and engineering through telescope building, computer science with cybersecurity and coding, and even space agriculture—allowing students to build a mechanical arm to harvest crops in outer space. Galactic Quest also examines the history of space exploration and the hurdles present while in orbit.

This year, more than 200 participating programs are focus on STEM activities during their Lights On Afterschool events. Here are a few of the ideas we’ve seen so far:

Partnering with an organization that focuses on STEM learning: The Napoleon & Ada Moton Chapman Institute has a partnership with NASA’s Museum Alliance as part of their Lights On celebration: “STEM is Here To Stay: Come & Learn!”

Combining STEM with health and wellness: The STEM club and SMART moves club of the Kadena Teen Center will collaborate to create colored powder for the organization’s Lights On Afterschool color run.

Incorporating STEM with the Lights On theme: The Boys and Girls Club of The Northtowns in Buffalo, New York, is hosting a “Lights On Afterschool Town” event, featuring a glow party and DIY STEM projects about lights and circuits.

Utilizing resources such as those provided by Million Girls Moonshot: Throughout October, Million Girls Moonshot is celebrating girls and women in STEM for Lights On Afterschool. Visit their Million Girls Moonshot toolkit to find STEM resources, events, and activities to help students explore STEM opportunities and foster the engineering mindset.

Join the hundreds of other afterschool programs around the nation this year in celebrating Lights On Afterschool and STEM learning!

As co-chair of the Congressional 4-H Caucus, I join a group of 55 Representatives who are advocates, champions and alumni of 4-H, raising awareness of the organization’s impact on young people and communities across the United States. We are a community of leaders who use our national platforms to impact the districts we serve locally.

As one of eight children born to migrant farm workers in Laredo, Texas—in a household where we primarily spoke Spanish—I was raised with a passion for advancement and an unwavering work ethic. My parents emphasized education, and to them at that time, a high school education was a great achievement. However, they continued to support me as I went beyond what was expected of me, earning a Juris Doctor and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.

Today, as the most degreed member of Congress, I credit my education to what my parents instilled in me and their vision for my future.  Due to their influence, my public service to Texas is still informed by the values of my local communities.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, I’m proud to join 4-H in their commemoration of recognition for Hispanic and Latinx individuals across the nation. The campaign, “La Comunidad,” exemplifies the importance of community and celebrates all aspects of what a community means to us all. Today, it is my honor to represent and give back to my community by serving as the U.S. Representative of the 28th District of Texas.

I support my community through the continued development and expansion of the Texas Grant Program, which allows thousands of students the chance to achieve a college education, particularly minorities. I address local agricultural, and nutrition needs by serving on the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee, which provides funding for farmers, ranchers, nutrition programs, food banks, school lunches, and more. Most importantly, I represent my community by being a voice for underserved and underrepresented communities who deserve fair and equitable opportunities to thrive.

Coincidentally, this week is National 4-H Week, a time to celebrate the life-changing experiences and opportunities 4-H provides to all its members in every corner of the nation. It is a celebration of the diversity of 4-H, and how all young people—our future community leaders—have a safe and inclusive space to succeed within their communities and our country.

A community is where we experience fellowship and share commonalities with the people around us. Family, friends, togetherness, hope, experiences, opportunities—that is how we define a community, and this is what 4-H represents.


Henry Cuellar
Member of Congress
28th District of Texas

Our world needs to solve big challenges in human health, agriculture, and food, and 4‑H is playing a critical role by cultivating the next generation of leaders in the agriculture industry. After the National 4‑H Youth Summit on Agri-Science this past March, teams of youth took part in the Dolphin Tank.

The Dolphin Tank”—a take on television’s Shark Tank—challenges teams of youth to develop Community Action Plans (CAP) that address a local agriculture issue in their community. The 4‑H-developed challenge provides experiences that lead to Positive Youth Development (PYD)* and sparks curiosity and discovery.

Teams were tasked with developing a written plan then pitching their ideas to ag industry leaders from Brightmark, CME Group, Farm Credit, National Corn Growers Association, Nationwide, New Holland, and Nutrien.

The highest ranked teams pitched their ideas for the opportunity to receive funds to put their plan into action. With support from Nationwide, Nutrien, and Brightmark, 24 teams from 17 states each received $1,000 to $2,000 to implement their Community Action Plan.

One of this year’s Dolphin Tank winning teams was the Eclectic Clovers Club, from Oregon State University Extension 4‑H. We got a chance to talk to Riley, a member of the team and a rising Junior at Zena Springs School in Polk County, Oregon, and Anne M. Walton, the team’s 4‑H leader, about their experience.



Riley and Anne, what inspired you to take part in the National 4‑H Summit on Agri-Science?

Riley: I have been interested in agriculture science since I was in elementary school, starting with dog training and an interest in vet school. After taking Junior Master Gardener classes I am now more focused on farm and forest. I was intrigued by the aspect of growing things that could benefit others, [like] a community garden or seed planning. In college, I want to get an engineering major and a military science minor. After college, I plan to specialize in biotechnology. Starting this project was really the opportunity to get my foot in the door and network with other people.

Anne: As a long time 4‑H Leader and Educator, I am always excited when 4‑H provides an avenue for young people to expand their knowledge and excitement about real world topics and careers.

Regarding your Summit experience, did you learn anything that surprised you?

Riley: I added to my existing knowledge of drone use in agriculture! I did not know how technologically advanced some of the drones could be for crops. This information from the speaker at Nutrien helped me develop my “Dolphin Tank” pitch.  Some of the newest drones can sense temperature fluctuations in different areas of crop fields, find and herd livestock, and ensure safety of workers in the field. Prior to starting this project, I did not know very much [about] aerospace technology and its use in farming.

Anne: For Riley, it was a great [opportunity] to attend the Summit and feel she wanted to try for a CAP Award. When she brought the idea to our survey group, the students got excited about the prospect of some support for advanced equipment to use in the project, and to be part of a national award interview.

What was it like working with your team for this program?


For most of my group it was their first time doing a big presentation. We started by developing a list of what we wanted to cover in the proposal, then we got to work assigning people to topics based on what they were interested in. Once we got the script set in stone and the slides made, we practiced several times over Zoom.  The whole process took about a month.

Part of our project survey area is managed by a private hardwood forest sawmill group from Willamette University and Oregon State University, so we had [several] scientists and foresters that we were already working with to bounce this award idea off of. My team members are great young people that I have already done projects with. We had been using a number of these survey techniques, learning the flora and fauna, and monitoring water levels and health on our own project grounds (my farm) for a couple years. So I felt they were ready to use these skills on a bigger scale and be able to give useful information to the neighboring properties.

What did you learn by preparing for and participating in the ‘Dolphin Tank’?

I learned how to present large-scale information and data in the form of a proposal. I thought the presentation experience was very streamlined. I appreciated the feedback we received after we presented to the panel. For my team and I, seeing the panel of adults genuinely interested was very welcomed because it is never easy for youth to get adults to notice and pay attention to our ideas and concerns about our planet.Anne: When one decides to pursue an award like this, one does so with the intention of succeeding. I told Riley and the team that they made a great effort in their essay and interview, and that alone was a great learning experience. We really could not believe how exciting it was to win. We thank you so much for this tremendous opportunity!

*Positive Youth Development (PYD) is the cornerstone of the   4‑H model. PYD:

  • productively and constructively engages youth within their communities;
  • recognizes, utilizes, and enhances their strengths; and
  • promotes positive outcomes for them by providing opportunities, fostering positive relationships, and providing the support needed to build on their leadership strengths.
Young people have a vision for their future that takes root in their community. The homegrown experiences and hometown connections, many of which originate in rural communities, drive their personal and career growth journey. But far too often, those rural communities are forgotten, resulting in a lack of resources for basic, yet essential, needs like education, career opportunities and healthcare.The Rise of Rural Living, the Fall of Rural Resources

According to the 2018 U.S. Census, 30,000 millennials left large cities for rural living. As this generation continues to make its way back to small towns for a slower pace and peace of mind, things are looking up for those communities. However, a long-standing problem reveals itself—the digital divide.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), approximately 14.5 million people in rural communities don’t have access to high-speed broadband internet and millions more lack the digital skills needed to use it productively. In addition, teens today are feeling the strain from a lack of quality broadband. In a recent 4‑H study on the digital divide, 43% of rural teens surveyed plan to leave their hometowns and 34% of those teens cite poor internet connectivity as the reason. As a result, these towns are losing talent and future innovation. With a surge of young families and many students adjusting to a  digital learning environment, many rural communities risk falling behind.

Prioritizing Place-Based Investment

4‑H and Tractor Supply Company are investing in rural communities through skill development and community building. Collectively, our organizations meet young people in rural communities where they are by delivering resources to ensure they have the tools necessary to succeed in life and career.

Our partnership includes a bi-annual Paper Clover campaign which raises funds that directly impact the operations and continued growth (or impact) of local 4‑H programs.

Tractor Supply has supported 4‑H since 2010. The success of the Paper Clover fundraiser is a testament to the generosity and support of its team and customers for 4‑H’s mission.  The donated funds remain in the state so the young men and women in the communities Tractor Supply calls home have access to invaluable 4‑H experiences such as hands-on educational camps, conferences, and other leadership programs. The 2021 Spring Paper Clover campaign raised over $718,000 bringing our partnership total to more than $15 million in support.  This year was all the more important as students need funding to return to extracurricular activities safely amid the pandemic.

The American Connection Project is a collaboration of Tractor Supply, National 4‑H Council, Microsoft, Land O’ Lakes, and 150+ other industry-wide organizations which provides more than 2,800 free Wi-Fi locations nationwide. This innovative alliance was recently named a finalist for Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards.—Access to these sites, including 1,200 Cooperative Extension offices and 1,400 Tractor Supply stores, ensures reliable broadband is available to communities that need it most.

As the nation’s largest youth development organization, led by America’s land-grant universities and Cooperative Extension System, 4‑H acts locally by meeting the needs of young people, no matter where they are. Our proven positive youth development programs are investments in rural communities that ensure all Americans have opportunities to grow and thrive. And youth are at the forefront of that growth. The expansion of the 4‑H Tech Changemakers program, which empowers young people to teach digital skills to adults in their community, is a vital step in preparing our future leaders and addressing the digital divide.

Eliminating the Opportunity Gap

To create a truly equitable and inclusive future for all, increased investments in rural communities are needed to close our country’s opportunity gap. Farmers, students, families, small business owners and entrepreneurs all depend on vital resources like high-speed internet access to connect and compete in a fast-changing economy. Tractor Supply and 4‑H are uniquely positioned to understand local needs and—as trusted household brands—develop national solutions.

Learn how 4‑H Tech Changemakers is empowering young people to close the digital divide.

Jennifer Sirangelo is the President and CEO of National 4‑H Council

Hal Lawton is the President and CEO of Tractor Supply Company

National Agriculture Day is March 23 here in the U.S., and it has me thinking about the long, unlikely road that led me to agriculture and the importance it plays to the future of my own family and this bigger global community I’m a part of.

Despite my role today and the great pride I have in my work, the truth is, I didn’t think agriculture was for me.

I mean like, not at all.

I grew up on a farm near the small town of Millersville, Missouri. I’m proud to say it’s the same farm my mom, dad, brother and more than 200 of the world’s finest Black Angus cows occupy today.  But, as a teenager, I was convinced I wanted nothing to do with ag once I left the farm.

I worked alongside my dad many days after school, most weekends and every day during the summer. As many of you know, one scorching July of baling hay – the old-fashioned way, with square bales – can quickly turn a person off the idea of farming for a living. As I did my chores, drove tractors, cared for cows and tended to crops, I dreamed of going someplace like Chicago or New York, anywhere but Millersville.

But I learned that sometimes you can’t really appreciate what small-town America and what agriculture has to offer until you leave and come back.

My parents were horrified when I announced my intention to major in Art History and English. While reluctantly supportive, my two very practical parents put their blind faith in me and a power higher than any of us to help guide my path. But what’s really interesting is that English and Art History eventually put me on a career path that took me as far away as the high-tech PR industry in cities like Seattle, Silicon Valley, Houston, Austin and Dallas before leading me straight back to farming first at Monsanto and now at Bayer.

I started to realize what I should have known from the beginning: All the cool things my dad did on the farm, all the biology and science, I loved all that stuff. I just wasn’t very good at them from a technical perspective. But what I was good at was taking those complex ideas and translating them into concepts that were simple to understand and communicate. I can feel my dad giving me that knowing “I told you so look” right now as I write this.

And that’s what my job at Bayer now allows me to do – which is talk about some pretty mind-blowing science we create for farmers every day and explain how that science works to benefit our entire world. The wonderful things that are happening in agriculture impact everyone on the planet, and science is at the core of it all.

National Agriculture Day is a perfect moment in time to have a focused, important conversation about the intersection of science and agriculture and opportunity. And that’s what’s so awesome about 4‑H – they bring people into that conversation.

I’m proud of the work we do at Bayer and the rich tradition of every ag institution participating in National Agriculture Day. Way back when, I was a 4‑H kid. I showed steers at the local county fair, grew prize-winning tomatoes with my grandma in her garden, and went to the Southeast Missouri District Fair in Cape Girardeau to exhibit them all. My mom took me to ceramics classes through 4‑H. I learned how to tie knots and macramé. I went to summer camps where I met lifelong friends.

All these wonderful programs continue to help close the agriculture gap by showing kids what’s possible for their futures, shaping them in ways they might not even be aware of yet. In 4‑H, I even learned public speaking skills that eventually prepared me for my role in communications. Being a 14-year-old kid full of nerves speaking in front of a crowd turned out to very helpful as a professional later in life.

Now, I have kids of my own. And while they don’t seem interested in agriculture either – the way their dad was at their age – it’s hard to say where their journey will lead them. These days I feel like my own father … gently pushing the opportunities an agri-business degree might open up to them.

My dad’s got this great saying: “The older you get, the smarter I’m going to become.” So, if anything, my path proved his old adage true. My parents are proud that I’m as passionate as I am about the work I do in food and agriculture, and the way it supports the work that they and my brother do on the farm. The experiences in 4‑H helped prepare me for a life and career I’m blessed to have.

So, in an odd way, maybe we were both right.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Avery Williamson has quite an impressive NFL career that spans seven years. What’s also inspiring is his love of farming. The fourth-generation farmer and Tennessee 4‑H alumnus has a passion for agriculture, and he’s paying it forward to the next generation of diverse farmers.

I caught up with Avery to discuss why it’s important to find your passion and create more opportunities for diversity in agriculture.

What was life like growing up on your family’s farm?

Avery Williamson (AW): I grew up on my family’s farm in Milan, Tennessee. It was right down the street from where my grandpa and great-grandpa’s farms used to be. I spent a lot of time outside as a kid and started helping my dad around the farm when I was six years old. My dad was a truck driver, so when he was away, he would leave me in charge and give me responsibilities on the farm, including feeding and taking care of our cows. It wasn’t easy at times because I’d usually have to work on the farm before school or afterwards when most of my friends were out having fun.

After I went to college and entered the NFL, my dad continued to work on the farm after retiring. During my second year in the NFL, I learned that one of my teammates had a farm. So that inspired me to invest in our family farm. I purchased new equipment, more cows, and the rest is history. I love it. Unfortunately, I don’t get to go back as much as I want to right now, but it’s something I really love. I’m passionate about farming, and it’s what I want to do when I retire. I think managing a farm is something that not many people think a Black athlete would be doing.

How did your experience in agriculture shape who you are today?

AW: My dad always said that the hard work I did on the farm made me tough for football. It instilled a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility at a young age. When I was in 5th grade, I knew I wanted to get into football, so to work out, I built a track in our hay fields to pull a car tire back and forth every day, rain or shine, in between school and my farm chores. I eventually worked my way up to a tractor tire before I went to college.

In elementary school, I learned a lot about agriculture and taking care of cows through Tennessee 4‑H. 4‑H supported my passion and interest in farming, building skills that helped with our family farm and in business which I still use to this day.

Why do you think it’s important to uplift stories like yours or those of other Black farmers? 

AW: It’s so cool for kids to hear these stories because it could inspire them to explore careers or interests in agriculture. The world runs on agriculture—from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. We’ll rely on young people to bring fresh ideas and talent to the agriculture industry in the future. That means making sure all voices are heard. As an athlete, I have a great platform. So hopefully telling my story and stories of my family will inspire others.

What are some of the challenges facing Black farmers today?

AW: For my family, even growing up, we continue to face racism. Others would see the hard work we put into our farm, the resources we have, and think we aren’t deserving of them because we are Black. A year ago, someone opened the gate to our farm, and nearly all of our cows got out. We experience these kinds of incidents to this day. But we never let it deter us from what we love to do. We’re proud that our family has always had our own land, all the way back to my great-grandpa.

In what ways are you inspiring young people to find their passion, as you found yours, whether in agriculture, sports, or other interests?  

AW: I try to lead by example and help young people to see their own potential by continuing to show my work ethic and my passion. I’ve stayed consistent. I tell kids all the time that even when you are successful in something, you have to keep pushing. Continue to motivate yourself through the good and bad moments.

So, what brought you back to 4‑H, and why are you partnering with the organization? 

AW: My 4‑H and agriculture experiences helped shape who I am today. I am so much more than a football player because of it. So I wanted people to see that side of me and to pay it forward. Through my partnership with 4‑H, I’ve been able to share what a day in the life of a farmer is like by inviting aspiring farmer, Ohio 4‑H’er Joyona Helsel to my farm. We had so much fun. We rode in my tractor, baled hay, and picked fresh vegetables from the garden. Joyona even tried a beet for the first time. I love to share these experiences with young people and show them that there’s more to farming than they might think. And I hope to continue to open up my farm to more kids. I want to use my platform to give kids opportunities and experiences that could inspire an interest in agriculture.

What are some other ways we can continue providing young people with meaningful experiences that will impact and change the course of their future?

AW: Hands-on experiences are key. For example, it’s essential to get kids out on the farm when it comes to agriculture. Let them experience it. Every kid learns differently. Along with traditional classroom learning, kids need the opportunity to see it, live it, and experience firsthand what interests them. It can be life changing.

What advice would you give to a young person who has a passion for agriculture and wants to find their purpose in the field? 

AW: Don’t give up on what you love to do. There are a lot of opportunities, especially for Black farmers. For any person of color, you can be successful in agriculture.



This interview is a part of a series of blogs supporting 4‑H’s Community Impact program emphasizing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion – an effort sponsored by Nationwide®

Nationwide, the Nationwide N and Eagle and Nationwide is on your side are service marks of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company. © 2021 Nationwide 

Meet Dr. Robert Jones, Chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a proud Georgia 4‑H alumnus, and member of National 4‑H Council’s Board of Trustees. A son of a sharecropper in the Jim Crow era of southwestern Georgia, he established himself as a successful scientist, renowned scholar, award-winning musical artist, and today, spearheads innovative research in COVID-19 testing.

During our chat, he shares how his university is eliminating the opportunity gap through a commitment to affordable and accessible education.


I’ve had the pleasure of hearing your 4‑H story. For those who haven’t, can you share your 4‑H experience and describe what it was like for you in your community? 

Dr. Robert Jones (RJ): I was encouraged to join 4‑H in elementary school. It was probably the first structured and informal learning environment that I participated in outside of school and church. I do remember our 4‑H chapter met on the top floor of a funeral home, which was pretty traumatizing for me. And although this was in the Jim Crow South—only the Black kids met together—it was a good experience for me. That positive youth development helped me better understand myself and my leadership capabilities.

How was your 4‑H experience different from today’s 4‑H? 

RJ: The idea of youth development, leadership development, and character building are still very much at the core. But how that mission is delivered, I think, has transformed significantly. I think there’s been a deliberate effort to extend this youth development program, through Cooperative Extension*, to more urban communities and communities of color. I think it’s one of the things that has changed dramatically, in addition to the use of technology, particularly during COVID-19. I am delighted that 4‑H continues to carry out the mission of education and training, leveraging technology and innovations. So, while the core mission remains the same, 4‑H’s mission is actualized and the strategies for delivery have changed significantly.

As mentioned on the university’s website, you’re helping to make “world-class college education affordable and accessible.” Why is that so important?

RJ: Affordability and access are things that I have been very adamant about throughout most of my academic career. Because of my father—who made sure we didn’t miss school to harvest crops—I’ve always understood the value of an education. I think it was W.E.B. DuBois that said something like, “There’s nothing more fundamental or more critically important than the right to an education.” I embrace and invite that notion throughout my life. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college, so I had to work two full-time jobs to make enough money to pay my first year of college tuition. I had to work to provide access to my own education and my goal is to try to make it easier for others.

Besides your father, was there someone in your life who had a similar passion and invested in you the way you invest in young people today? 

RJ: I call them interveners: those who protect you from yourself. The first one in my life was my vocational agriculture teacher in high school. He took me under his wing and encouraged me to get involved in different programs. When I attended Fort Valley State University, there was Malcolm Blount, who was in charge of undergraduate education for all the Agronomy Science students. He set very high expectations. Lastly, while in the Ph.D. program at the University of Missouri, there was Jerry Nelson. He prepared me for a life as a university professor and a successful scholar and scientist. He nominated me for the George Washington Carver Scholarship that made a financial difference in my own accessibility and affordability of education. These were the folks along the way that helped make a difference.

During your tenure as Chancellor, you’ve spearheaded many of the university’s efforts in expanding diversity within the school’s programs and opportunities within the community. Share some of the university’s successes in closing the opportunity gap.

RJ: We have almost 10,000 international students. However, we struggled a bit with increasing the diversity of the student body. So, we were able to create the Illinois Commitment, which offers free tuition and fees for any in-state student from a family making $61,000 or less to provide access to the university experience. As a result, we brought in the largest cohort of African American and Latinx students in the university’s history. We had a 7.2% increase the first year. It’s a big financial commitment to do that. But, nothing’s free; somebody has to pay this commission. So we decided that we would pay it. It has been one of the most transformative things I’ve been able to do at a university. And in a financial crisis caused by the pandemic that’s costing us over $200 million so far, we made a commitment to continue advancing access and affordability.

How did the university’s work shift during a global pandemic, and how is it continuing to evolve?

RJ: I’m proud to say that we were one of the first institutions to move to remote education. But we were hearing from our students and their parents that they wanted to be back on campus. We knew that the best educational experience you can offer students is a face-to-face model. So, we decided on a hybrid model to start the fall semester, with about 30% of our courses in-person. To make this happen, we needed to conduct tests at least twice a week, and the nasal test is very uncomfortable. It was evident to us at the time that the available COVID-19 testing capability was not going to be congruent with our ability to bring nearly 50,000 people back to campus. So, as one of the top institutions receiving funding from the National Science Foundation—allowing us to continue advancing research during the pandemic—we did what Illinois does: we invented our own test! Our saliva-based COVID-19 test is the most innovative in the world. It’s scalable, cost-effective, and it is the main reason we could complete the fall semester the way we started.

Now, over 50 universities are using our test or taking an interest. There’s potential for implementation in Seoul, New Zealand and Indonesia. We’ve even had conversations with the Biden Administration. So, what we developed for our own selfish purposes to bring our students back on campus has turned into a testing ecosystem.

Your overall commitment to putting your students first is admirable. How can more universities close the opportunity gap and create more equitable experiences for young people in all stages of their learning/careers?

RJ: As leaders in higher education, we should be concerned about the educational experiences of students on campus, and work with K-12 education to ensure more students are college-ready. We have to take some ownership of the fact that the percentage of students of color graduating from high school is going down. The percentage of students of color that are college-ready is only a fraction of what it was 10-20 years ago. So I can’t sit here creating multimillion-dollar programs to provide access and affordability for students when there is a decreasing number of students that are going to be qualified to take advantage of these opportunities. We need to be more intentional and strategic to ensure kids are reading by third grade, doing math by fourth grade, and college-ready by ninth grade. We need programs like 4‑H, which provides essential youth development resources, mentors and hands-on experiences for life, college and career readiness.


*The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide, non-credit educational network. Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land grant university and a network of local or regional offices. These offices are staffed by experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small-business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.


This interview is a part of a series of blogs supporting 4‑H’s Community Impact program emphasizing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion – an effort sponsored by Nationwide®

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