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Iowa 4-H Members Engage in National-Level Discussions

By Sydney Peterson and Madeleine Bretey-Smith

Six Iowa 4-H youth members joined nearly 300 of the nation’s best and brightest young people in Washington, D.C., April 19-24, to attend the 2024 National 4-H Conference, hosted by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Iowa’s delegates were Saylee Gingerich, Johnson County; Charles Schrader, Linn County; Kaci Vanlaningham, Polk County; Elijah Westercamp, Van Buren County; Conner McCoy, Warren County; and Monica Osborn, West Pottawattamie County. These delegates were selected to represent Iowa through State 4-H Recognition Day.

“National 4 H Conference is the pinnacle experience in 4 H civic engagement, providing the opportunity for these young people to connect, learn, engage, lead and impact their communities, nation and world,” said Madeleine Bretey-Smith, 4-H civic engagement and leadership specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Promoting community, providing opportunity

The conference focused on “Promoting Community, Providing Opportunity” and 4-H delegates heard from various federal representatives, including remarks and a panel discussion with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

In preparation for their conference experience, the Iowa delegation had engaged in orientation activities, including a session with Iowa State University’s assistant director of federal relations Haley Moon, in which they learned how to reach out to and most effectively use their time during meetings with their representatives. Each delegate oversaw scheduling a visit for a meeting while they were in Washington, D.C.

Delegates not only learned while at the conference but also had the opportunity to practice and apply in a real-world setting their newly developed and refined skills. They each served on a societal topic committee with youth from around the nation to discuss and develop solutions for critical issues facing today’s youth at the federal level. Topics focused on career pathways, youth engagement in rural communities, education, civic engagement and more.  

The youth researched their roundtable topic before the conference to better prepare when meeting with their full groups in Washington, D.C., where they were joined with peers from across the country. “Each of our youth brought their own perspective and was able to discuss the selected issue in relation to where they live in Iowa and their county specifically,” said Bretey-Smith.

They then participated in roundtable sessions with staff and members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and with various federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Each federal partner provided a challenge question for youth to research, brainstorm and prepare a briefing.

After two days of collaborative preparation, each committee group traveled to the federal offices to present their findings to government or other agency officials. For several agencies, this event is among the few ways that they get youth feedback and, for some, the only time they have youth interaction.

A transformational experience

Reflecting on her round table experience, Iowa 4-H delegate Monica Osborn from West Pottawattamie County said, “People really do not tell you how difficult it is to put together a 45-minute presentation, even with the help of 17 other delegates. I am extremely proud of my roundtable in our presentation about civic engagement to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We worked extremely hard to contribute our individual parts, and it ended up being beautifully put together.”

“I learned the value of communication. I knew it was important, but [National 4-H Conference] demonstrated it,” explained Iowa 4-H delegate Saylee Gingerich from Johnson County. “At the start of our round table, we had disagreements, but because of good communication, we ended up getting along very well and worked together effectively and productively.”

Kaci Vanlaningham, Iowa 4-H delegate from Polk County, explained, “Trips like these teach students so much about civic engagement and leadership by throwing students right into the thick of it. They really are incredible experiences for learning from others and growing as a leader.”

In addition to giving round table presentations, the delegates also participated in a range of other events, including citizenship excursions, visiting some of the nation’s significant monuments with facilitated discussions and educational experiences designed around each stop, a national monuments tour at night, youth career fair, 4-H flag raising ceremony at the USDA headquarters, dance theater performance, and a closing celebration ceremony and dance.

Osborn added, “I learned what it truly means to be an advocate. My past experiences have dealt a lot with unanimous teamwork. This past week, I collaborated with equally passionate people with extremely different backgrounds and perspectives than me. Together, we had the opportunity to share our unique experiences to work towards one common goal. We challenged ourselves to make sacrifices to acknowledge everyone. It was such an enlightening experience!”

“My favorite part was getting to present at the Pentagon,” explained Iowa 4-H delegate Elijah Westercamp from Van Buren County. “This is something I never expected to be able to do, especially as a youth.”

Gingerich reflected on her whole National 4-H Conference experience, saying, “I think it is important for youth to be able to go on trips like this for 4-H because it provides opportunities for us to work with real-life problems and brainstorm solutions. I was able to speak with senators and people who make an impact on my community. Being able to talk to them was a very meaningful experience and one I am very thankful for being able to have.”

“National 4-H Conference is a transformational experience for young people,” said Nichol Kleespies, ISU Extension and Outreach northwest 4-H field supervisor and Iowa 4-H conference chaperone. “Each participant from Iowa came home with a new perspective to consider, a new network of 4-H connections and a desire to make a difference in their local communities.”

Participation in the National 4-H Conference trip was made possible by donors to the Iowa 4-H Foundation with major support from David and Valerie Pace, Anne Oldham and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

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