What’s the best way to prepare young people for success? Youth advocates say it begins with positive relationships, experiences and environments. The agriculture community has long provided all three for hundreds of thousands of North Dakota young people through 4-H and FFA programs.
“We work with students ages 5 through high school,” says Brad Cogdill, the state 4-H program leader and chair of the Center for 4-H Development. “And when we train our staff and adult volunteers, we focus on the essential elements of positive youth development and develop the program around a life- skills model.”
He explains that the 4-H model includes providing a sense of belonging, creating opportunities to practice independence and develop mastery of a subject, and then offering opportunities to practice generosity by giving back.
“When young people have the chance to build these strong, foundational skills, there is a high level of transferability across their lives as citizens and leaders,” Cogdill says.
Aaron Anderson agrees. As the state’s FFA advisor and agriculture education supervisor for the North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education, he has seen the positive impact the program has on high school students. And with an estimated 1,800 new North Dakota FFA members last year, lots of others see it, too.
“Students appreciate the opportunities FFA provides,” Anderson says. “We’re teaching them to be active learners and to challenge themselves to move beyond their comfort zones, all of which develops leadership. And because our members are all enrolled in an agriculture class in high school, they can directly apply the skills they learn in the classroom in a practical way with the support of an FFA advisor and classroom teacher to mentor them.”
Not only have Cogdill and Anderson seen how the program changes the lives of young people, they’ve both experienced it personally. Anderson was a Rugby FFA member in high school and taught high school agriculture for five years before joining the state FFA staff. Cogdill was a 10-year 4-H member growing up in Ward County and has been involved with the organization professionally for nearly four decades.
“Historically, 4-H served rural youth across the country,” Cogdill explains. “Certainly, we continue to do that, but today our intent is to reach young people no matter where they live, to promote positive youth development for students who live in an agricultural community and those who are in urban areas.”
So while there are still traditional 4-H projects that focus on animal science, gardening and nature, students are also exploring robotics, GPS and other STEM-based disciplines.
“The future of agriculture depends on our young people being exposed to the industry, being able to visualize a place for themselves in it and being willing to give back,” says Cogdill.
Programs like 4-H and FFA are ensuring North Dakota young people are ready for that future.