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CITIZEN U: Inspiring young leaders in New York State

By jenjensen | May 04, 2014

By Andy Turner, Interim State 4-H Program Leader, Cornell Cooperative Extension

Reading Scott Peter’s original blog post for the Extension Reconsidered project led me to reflect on my own Extension “story”–a story that goes back three generations–but more importantly it led me to think about how critical it is to capture and share the Extension stories that are unfolding with a new generation.

I have been inspired and encouraged during my first few months in the role of State Leader for 4-H youth development to discover how our 4-H educators are finding new ways to connect with young people who have much to gain from the resources of Cooperative Extension and the land grant university system.

A good example of this is a project unfolding in Broome and Monroe counties, called CITIZEN U.  CITIZEN U transforms high school students into community leaders by helping them learn about, imagine, and carry out their own community development projects over a two-year period. It promotes civic engagement, workforce preparation, and asset development among youth ages 14-18.  Local teens submit applications to be accepted at one of the CITIZEN U’s “campuses” and are then enrolled in university-style seminars.  During the summer, the teens plan and implement community based projects they have identified as important, such as tackling obesity through the reduction of sugary beverages in schools, or addressing teen dating violence.

In Broome County, CITIZEN U partners with local grass roots organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Binghamton, the Roberson Museum and Science Center, faculty from Cornell University and Binghamton University’s Center for Civic Engagement to offer the after school seminars and guide the community improvement projects.

The long term benefits to the students are many. During their time in the program, the teens explore challenging careers, build their resumes, and increase their likelihood of going to college.  And that’s exactly what has happened—100% of the CITIZEN U Teen Leaders who completed their two-year commitment to the program (2011-2013) and graduated from high school have gone on to two- and four-year colleges on full or partial scholarships.

CCE Broome County’s Teen Leader Nosa Akol has been given several opportunities recently to share her experiences in CITIZEN U as well as other 4-H opportunities in Binghamton and at Cornell.  Nosa’s participation in 4-H Career Explorations led to her being selected as New York State’s delegate to the 2013 World Food Prize in Iowa, an experience that quite literally set her life on a new course.  After researching her World Food Prize paper on how micro-farming in South Sudan could become a mechanism for helping women and young girls overcome gender-based violence, illiteracy and poverty, Nosa is now looking at studying international policy in college. 

On March 25, Nosa was invited to present at the Borlaug Symposium at the USDA in Washington D.C.  in front of an audience that included USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack.  As she began sharing her ideas on ways agriculture can be used to address the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, Secretary Vilsack interrupted Nosa, saying, “Wait a minute, my wife needs to hear this.” Secretary Vilsack soon returned with his wife to listen to Nosa present her poster, Achieving Human Rights through Education for the Women and Girls of South Sudan.  Nosa learned that Mrs. Vilsack has a special interest in South Sudan and is currently engaged in women’s empowerment projects there.

Nosa Akol (second from left) presenting at the Borlaug Symposium in Washington DC. Photo courtesy of CITIZEN U and Andrew Turner.

Nosa Akol (second from left) presenting at the Borlaug Symposium in Washington DC. Photo courtesy of CITIZEN U and Andrew Turner.

Nosa just learned that she is a recipient of a USDA Wallace-Carver Fellowship and will have a summer internship at the National Agriculture Library in Washington, DC this summer.  Additional photos and updates of Nosa (including Nosa with Secretary and Mrs. Vilsack) and other youth in action for CITIZEN U are published on their Facebook page.

This is a little snippet of the story of one 4-H participant from one innovative 4-H program in New York, but I present it as evidence that Extension is in fact already being not only “reconsidered” but also reinvented and renewed in ways that apply to the vastly changing landscape of the 21st century.  We have a long way to go to complete the journey but there are many stories like Nosa’s that need to be told and considered as we evaluate the viability and continued potential of 4-H and Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Special thanks to June P. Mead, Ph.D., State Project Director, CYFAR/CITIZEN U, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County, and Nosa Akol, for providing the background for this post.

More information about CITIZEN U:
CITIZEN U uses CCE’S 4-H Signature Program, Youth Community Action, to promote civic engagement and workforce preparation among at-risk teens. CITIZEN U is a metaphor for creating a university environment in which teens are empowered to become community change agents and graduate successfully from high school prepared for college and careers. CITIZEN U was recently designated as an “Exemplary Program” by the Children, Youth and Families At Risk (CYFAR) Program.  CYFAR is a national program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).