What will an engaged, networked Extension educator look like within the next decade? Equally important, how will he or she set the benchmark for social media use in the future?
For purposes of illustration and in the interests of advancing the boundaries of imagination, I will employ a time-honored technique: storytelling — only in this case, the characters are entirely fictitious.
Tamara, the Creative Oddball
I’ll start with my main character, a young Extension educator named Tamara.
Tamara is one of those creative oddballs who enlighten us every bit as much as they mystify us.
Teachers recognized something special about Tamara at an early age — a precocious, creative brilliance that she eagerly, if not manically at times, poured into her art classes and school plays.
Ironically, though, these sparks of brilliance didn’t carry over to her school work. Teachers noted an inability to focus on classroom work. Her grades suffered. For a time, the teachers even considered testing her for ADHD.
Tamara Finds Her “Element”
All of this changed in 7th grade when Tamara was exposed to hands-on horticulture for the first time through a plant science project suggested by Rick, an Extension horticulture agent temporarily on loan to 4-H. Rick saw a part of himself in Tamara. He had dealt with a similar struggle balancing his creative passions with the need to slog through standard classroom work.
As Rick had hoped, the plant science project sparked a change in Tamara’s life. It not only sparked a change: It took hold of Tamara, becoming an all-consuming passion. Much to her teachers’ and parents’ delight, this passion spilled over into all areas of her life.
While she didn’t know it at the time, Tamara had encountered what world renowned educational expert Ken Robinson describes as “the element,” which forms when personal passion and talent are fused. For Tamara, hours spent with plants seemed like the passage of mere minutes.
This exposure began to open doors for Tamara. The insights she garnered from working with plants carried over into conventional classroom work, notably biology and chemistry.
By her senior year in high school, her vastly improved grades, coupled with her SAT scores, enabled her to secure a full scholarship to study horticulture at her state land-grant university.
Following college and graduate school, Tamara was offered several lucrative jobs in the nursery/greenhouse industry. She turned all of them down with scarcely a second thought. Money was never an issue with her. Rick’s selfless, idealistic professionalism and his all-consuming passion for and connection with plants, had left an indelible impression on her. For that matter, so had the circle of equally dedicated, idealistic Master Gardeners with whom Rick worked. She cherished all the times she had spent with them, puttering around greenhouses, transferring plants to local gardens and sharing the almost mystical contentment that comes from watching them grow.
She wanted to be an Extension educator like Rick.
Much to her delight, Tamara eventually landed her dream job as a regional Extension agent specializing in home gardening and pests in a medium-sized metropolitan area. A big part of her job would involve working with Master Gardeners to organize local beautification and educational projects on behalf of adults and youth.
Professionally speaking, Tamara had arrived.
Tamara, the Trendsetter
Even so, like many 23-year-old professionals bearing freshly printed graduate diplomas, she thought she had mastered everything required to excel in her work. She was also determined to set an organizational benchmark every bit as memorable as that of her mentor, Rick.
After reading about the implications of social media, she became passionately convinced that adopting social media technologies was critical to the future of Cooperative Extension work.
She intended to lead by example. Soon after taking the reins of her new job, Tamara developed a gardening blog that covered all aspects of her field — one, she hoped, would develop into a definitive source for gardening information in her region. She links the blog to her Flickr account, which she uses to collect images of new varieties, planted diseases, and invasive species — anything of potential interest to her clients.
She also uses a social bookmarking web service, which has enabled her to compile a staggering resource list encompassing links to trade journal articles and online books.
In addition to operating a Facebook page with other local horticultural Extension agents, Tamara also has developed a hefty Twitter following. She tweets throughout the day, passing along observations about emerging home gardening issues, responding to client concerns, and questions and sharing links to timely articles.
With the zeal comparable to a 19th century Methodist circuit rider, Tamara started out with every intention of becoming the vanguard of the engaged, networked, 21st century Extension educator. She was determined to disabuse her fellow educators and clients of all those outmoded, 20th century notions about knowledge dissemination.
She believes that networked Extension educators will have a unique and valuable role serving as aggregators, using social media tools to assemble critical resources on behalf of their clients, and as curators, providing this material within enriched, value-added contexts.
Sam, the Benign Antagonist
Tamara’s zealotry was tempered a bit after a few weeks of association with the benign antagonist of this story: Sam, age 52, an area crops specialist whose office is located next to Tamara. Ironically, Sam, the son of a long-serving and beloved county Extension agent, had charted a considerably different career path at Tamara’s age.
Majoring in agronomy at Tamara’s alma mater in the mid-1970s, Sam had undertaken a lucrative career in the agricultural industry following graduation, though always with the hope of retiring early so that he could pursue his real passion: working with farmers as an Extension educator, just as his father had.
He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Five years after ascending the corporate ladder and becoming a regional vice president of a national farm supply company, Sam resigned at 37 to undertake the biggest gamble of his life: to invest all of his life savings into starting his own farm supply company.
The gamble paid off: less than a decade later, he sold it for a small fortune, though large enough to enable him to live off it comfortably while preparing for his long-awaited second career as an Extension educator.
After enrolling in graduate school at age 45 and securing a master’s degree in agronomy, Sam finally closed the circle, securing a job as a regional agronomy agent and following in his father’s footsteps. He was assigned an office in a regional Extension center that ultimately would be located next to Tamara’s.
“Brainiac” Meets “Pop”
Weeks after her arrival, Tamara formed a tight professional bond with Sam. They ultimately became known among their colleagues as the “odd couple.”
He called her “Brainiac.” She called him “Pop.”
From the start, Sam took a deep paternal interest in Tamara. He admired her earnestness and idealism, especially her willingness to forgo material comforts to pursue her passion — something he simply could not bring himself to do as at the same age.
For her part, Tamara, something of a shy, introverted intellectual, admired Sam for his people skills — those traits that comprise what is widely known today as emotional intelligence.
Tamara marveled at the ease with which Sam connected with new clients, stakeholders and partners at a deep personal level. Her exposure to Sam opened up new insights into Extension work that she had never previously considered.
Sam helped underscore to Tamara that Extension work is as much about forming a bond with clients —understanding and even empathizing with them — as it is about delivering a product.
As Sam is so fond stressing, half the challenge of Extension work is “getting into his growers’ heads.” By that he means that through years of building close, empathetic relationships with clients, Extension educators can develop a kind of sixth sense, learning how to anticipate their clients’ needs even before they are able to articulate them.
As he’s stressed to Tamara time and again, the most outstanding Extension educators sooner or later cultivate this sixth sense.
Thanks to Sam’s influence, what she initially undervalued — field days, conferences and workshops — she now prizes as valuable ways to connect with her clients and to articulate their needs.
She’s also learned how this intimate person-to-person interaction can enhance her social media outreach work. Thanks to Sam, she now better understands how the real-life insights she garners through face-to-face contacts can help her refine the sorts of information she shares with her wider audiences through social media channels.
Conversely, she is beginning to appreciate how the global perspective gained through dialogue with her social media contacts will enable her to provide her local clients with a wider, multidisciplinary perspective.
Sam has provided Tamara with something equally valuable: a genuine reverence for the constellation of values that define Cooperative Extension work — as he sees them, values just as relevant to the 21st century as they were a century ago. He has helped her understand that her success as a networked Extension educator will be measured by how well these traditional values are balanced with the demands of the wired world.
A Two-Way Friendship
Yet, this is far from a one-way relationship: Sam had acquired a few lessons of his own through association with his young friend.
Early in their friendship, Sam had struggled to suppress a chuckle or two when Tamara embarked on one of her passionate jeremiads about why Extension was doomed unless it got serious about social media adoption.
He initially had not only tended to dismiss social media but also feared that it would dilute the intimacy between educator and client that has always underscored Extension work.
However, that didn’t stop Sam from closely observing Tamara’s approach. Over time, he has even cultivated his own appreciation for the role social media technologies could play in enhancing his own outreach efforts.
While not as far-reaching as Tamara’s, Sam’s efforts are impressive, certainly for a middle-aged man in the middle of a second career.
He has developed his own agronomy weblog that updates area growers about all facets of farming from an agronomic perspective. Much to his surprise and considerable satisfaction, his stereotypically homespun, self-deprecating writing style has garnered a wide following among row-crop producers throughout the Southeast. More than once, his pieces dealing with crop projections and the challenge of balancing sustainability with farm profitability have even been carried by major farm-trade publications.
Like Tamara, Sam has also developed an appreciation for the role aggregation and curation increasingly will play in the future of Extension work — an appreciation not only reflected in his weblog but also in the social bookmarking he’s adopted to complement his blog.
In their own unique ways, Tamara and Sam are setting professional benchmarks for other Extension professionals.
Despite their vastly different temperaments, ages and life experiences, they comprise the vanguard of a new type of Extension professional: the engaged, networked Extension educator of the 21st century.