4-H is Back!
4-H at VSU has been reinvigorated thanks to the addition of two new hires. Maurice Smith Jr. ’09, Ph.D., joined in January as Extension specialist in Youth Development, Citizenship & Leadership Development, and Chantel Wilson, Ph.D., joined in August as Extension specialist/STEAM educator. This article, the first of a two-part series on 4-H, will focus on Smith’s efforts.
Smith joined Cooperative Extension because he wanted to give a new spin to 4-H youth development at his alma mater. “This is my home, so that was one of the main reasons to come back, to give back to my college where I started my educational journey,” he said. One new spin, among several, is developing Virginia 4-H as a brand that reflects the statewide initiative and partnership between VSU and Virginia Tech.
Although the Sussex County native wasn’t raised on a farm and didn’t participate in 4-H while growing up, Smith majored in agriculture because he wanted to know more about where his food came from. He earned his bachelor’s degree in agriculture business and economics from VSU, and his master’s and doctoral degrees in agricultural and Extension education from Virginia Tech (2012) and The Pennsylvania State University (2017), respectively. He is also a former 4-H youth development Extension agent in Sussex County. His education, along with his professional experience, has given him a knowledge base he can share with others.
Smith is intent on connecting with youth and offering programming that matches their interests. “We can’t expect youth to come to us. We have to meet them where they’re at,” he said. “If it’s social media marketing, we have to bring our webpage and our social media presence up to par so parents can have an avenue to find information.” Programmatically the 4-H curriculum he’s implementing will be the same, but will be spiced up with innovative, hands-on educational activities. “My motto is not to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “I like to work from something and build it up because I pay respect to those that have built that wheel for me to get to this point.”
He likened engaging students to baking a tasty cake. “We have to put the right ingredients in our programs here at VSU to make it taste good because I really like desserts,” he said with a smile. Furthermore, exposure is key for youth excitement and thinking about career options in agriculture. “When I talk to students, I find out what their interests are, where they come from, then ask ‘Have you ever thought about…?’ When I use that question, it gets their minds rolling,” he said. “Then I share aspects about my personal story and how I got involved in these organizations and stepped out of my comfort zone to get involved.” As part of his job he helps 4-H agents assess needs in specific communities and recommends which programs may best fit, including trainings and workshops at VSU.
Smith put his innovative efforts to work to create VSU’s first iLeadership Institute (formerly the Intermediate Congress), held last July. The one-week program is for youth aged 11 to 13 who are interested in becoming leaders in 4-H. During the week, the youth delegates were introduced to STEAM activities and participated in team building, networking and hands-on workshops. There were distinguished speakers and an etiquette dinner, during which youth learned important social and life skills such as how to conduct themselves at a formal occasion, how to sit at a banquet, manners for eating, etc. The institute is designed to enhance delegates’ ability to serve in local, district, state and national 4-H leadership roles.
Almost 40 youth attended the iLeadership Institute. “A lot of these kids were coming from the tri-city area, rural and urban communities, including inner city Richmond or areas in Chesterfield County. Some attendees from rural areas had never seen an 1890 land-grant university,” he said. “They have not been exposed to a program such as this, so it was eye-opening for them and they didn’t want to leave.” Smith recalled a young girl who was so moved by her experience that she cried when it was time to go home. Smith wants to create more opportunities for youth to network and make friends. “It’s very exciting now that those intermediate, middle school-aged youth will have an idea of what they want to major in and career opportunities available,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of parents call wanting their kids to be participants. I’m looking for a dramatic increase in participation going forward.” His goal: increase participation to 75 delegates next summer.
Collegiate 4-H Club
Smith recently submitted a proposal to create the first Collegiate 4-H Club on VSU’s campus. Only two other post-secondary institutions in Virginia have one. Smith explained that he wants to have Collegiate 4-H combine with or run adjacent to VSU’s Minorities in Agriculture Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) chapter. “I think Collegiate 4-H is going to give us a signature platform to recruit more students into agriculture and related sciences. It’s going to provide students more opportunities for professional development, to learn soft skills and for them to find out what they want to do,” he said. “The goal is to help prepare students for their career after the classroom.” Students attending VSU from counties and cities across the commonwealth are also a great resource to tap into in for 4-H programming.
VSU’s 4-H program targets heavily populated urban areas where underrepresented, at-risk youth may want to participate in 4-H, but cannot due to poverty, socioeconomic status, transportation issues and lack of resources. Smith spends a lot of time in schools, particularly in Hopewell, an at-risk area with no 4-H Extension agent. “Being that we’re so close, VSU can definitely engage youth through some targeted in-school programs,” he said. Smith wants to build a strong mentorship program because he considers it a critical ingredient to youth’s success. “Building relationships is one of the great components to youth development, and youth get to see how they can be contributing citizens as they grow up,” he said. Smith had a mentor whom he said changed his life just by listening. “I see my own life story and career story being a catalyst for other youth,” he said.
Students participating in Collegiate 4-H or MANRRS are already mentoring K-12 students, which, he said, “is essential because those kids look up to college students, and college students look up to professionals, so it’s a succession of different things happening all at once, and I think putting the right people in the right place, that exposure, can effect positive change.”
Plans are underway to launch STEAM-VSU, a Saturday morning event to be held at VSU in winter 2019. Smith is collaborating with STEAM Educator Dr. Wilson to plan a unique, hands-on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, agriculture and math) experience for K-12 students that will be held at VSU’s Multi-Purpose Center. The STEAM Fest will expose youth from urban, at-risk communities to STEAM.
“This event is something new, so we’re going to try it out to see how much exposure we get, but I think that it’s going to excite many community members about STEAM and learning what it can offer,” he said.
Progress Thus Far
Smith is thrilled with the progress he’s made thus far. “We’re pumping energy into 4-H because it’s so great. We are changing lives,” he said. “Everything that we do is for recruitment and making sure students succeed, and as many times as we can have youth come to Virginia State University, we’re going to be better off as we grow in years to come.”
He’s also excited about what’s coming up. “Everybody that’s at the table is going to be a winner, but we need people at the table—volunteers, parents, stakeholders and alumni—that have vested interest,” he said. “We need everybody at the table to make this dream a reality.”