While the vast majority of young people feel the desire and responsibility to lead, most of them don’t feel they are prepared with the right skills to lead, according to the 2016 4-H National Youth Survey on Leadership. As they prepare to enter a job market that will require some 1 million STEM graduates (Bureau of Labor Statistics), young people are in need of programming that fits with the scientific and technological trajectory of society. “It’s up to us to respond,” says Jennifer Sirangelo, CEO of the National 4-H Council, “for adults and leaders to provide encouragement, support and more hands-on experiences that will help young people build confidence and grow skills to lead in their career, and in their life.”
Sirangelo has been dedicated to the pursuit of hands-on experience for a long time. As a young girl from a family with few resources, youth development organizations were integral to her development. “I owe a lot to the caring adults who stepped up and gave me something extra I needed to grow life skills,” she says. “When the time came to determine my career path, I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my life than to do what I’m doing in 4-H – giving more kids what my mentors gave me: the experiences, skills and confidence to be true leaders.”
The National 4-H Council began as a program of the USDA’s Cooperative Extension Service and developed during the agricultural boom of the early 20th century. At that time, young people were more open and accepting to agricultural progress, and so 4-H developed programming that would aid them in becoming leaders and advocates for new technologies. 4-H’s guiding philosophy was that learning happened best while doing. “That is the core of 4-H positive youth development,” says Sirangelo, “and it remains the same today.”
Today, 4-H still has its roots in that learning-by-doing principle: through their 4-H experience, youth collaborate with adult mentors to lead hands-on projects. Sirangelo sees this as something more complex, though, with adults “providing guidance instead of directing, asking questions instead of giving answers, sitting in the passenger’s seat while the young person takes the wheel to lead, and sharing encouragement if they make a wrong turn.” These programs still involve agriculture but have expanded to include STEM, health, and more. Local 4-H programs include Healthy Living projects that deal with nutrition, fitness, and cooking; STEM projects that explore aerospace engineering, robotics, and hydroponics; agricultural programs for raising livestock and learning veterinary science; Business & Citizenship projects that hone public speaking skills, entrepreneurship, personal financing, and civic leadership; and Creative Arts projects that teach young people photography, filmmaking, theatre arts, and sewing. Youth are encouraged to either focus on an area or dabble in everything, but mentoring and career readiness are at the heart of all 4-H experiences.
Most recently, 4-H hosted the National Youth Science Day (4-H NYSD), a nationwide initiative to spark youth interest in STEM. The event includes interactive learning experiences – this year involved an engineering design challenge where young people were able to learn, experiment, and create with drone technology. “The more we can provide young people exposure to these types of hands-on experiences,” Sirangelo notes, “their interests and skills will grow, producing the next generation of leaders in STEM.”
Drones are a far cry from the technologies of the early 1900s, so what has lasted throughout the 100 years that 4-H has been in operation, and why? “True leaders aren’t born – they are grown,” says Sirangelo. “We are still connected to our roots in agriculture where it all started. We have always seen that every child has valuable strengths and real influence to improve the world around us if given practical, hands-on experience to develop their skills and ability to lead.” Organizations need to recognize not necessarily what will be the next generation of technology, but who will be the next generation of leaders and how we can support them by putting them in the driver’s seat. “In 4-H, this is what we do.”
Jennifer Sirangelo is a believer in young people and their capacity to change the world. She leads Council in its mission to increase investment and participation in high-quality 4-H positive youth development programs around the world. Ms. Sirangelo, who joined Council in 2006 to grow support for the 4-H movement, has focused on supporting global education, growth and leadership development for 7 million young people worldwide through programs in science, agriculture, health and citizenship. In her previous roles as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, she led the development of Council’s strategic plan and tripled annual fundraising. Prior to National 4-H Council, Ms. Sirangelo served as Regional Vice President for Boys & Girls Clubs of America in New York. Earlier in her career, she held leadership roles at Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, National Kidney Foundation, William Jewell College and Hillcrest Homeless Shelter.
Krystin Gollihue is a PhD student in the Communication, Rhetoric & Digital Media department at NC State University.