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Young agents embrace Extension's bright future
JACKSON – For Extension agents, education is more than the exchange of information. It’s personal. It is a connection to their students and a sense of responsibility for the outcomes.
It’s been that way since 1914, when the Cooperative Extension Service was established by the Smith-Lever Act. In the past 100 years, the organization, now known in the state as the Mississippi State University Extension Service, has delivered research-based information to Mississippians that helped them raise crops, livestock and families.
“We’ve always been about delivering knowledge that people need in their everyday lives,” said Kimberly Gowdy, Extension family and consumer sciences agent in Harrison County. “There is still a critical need in our community for general education on every facet of life, from child development to community sustainability.”
From mule-drawn plows and boys’ corn clubs to GPS-equipped tractors and technology-driven 4-H programs, the Extension Service remains essential for improving the quality of life in Mississippi. Gowdy is one of several innovative, young agents who are renewing Extension’s commitment to its motto: “Extending Knowledge. Changing Lives.”
Gowdy and her colleagues are dedicated to helping people gain the information they need. She is a former 4-H’er who grew up learning the importance of the programs Extension offers. Her mom was the Extension home economist for Harrison County for several years.
Gowdy, whose clients are primarily childcare providers and parents, said she tries to fully engage class participants for the best learning experience.
“I like to use fun, hands-on activities and music in my classes,” she said. “Most of the time, people are coming to my classes after working all day. I try to make learning as enjoyable as possible so people are more receptive to the information.”
In an age when information is literally at anyone’s fingertips, Extension remains a trusted, personal source.
“Extension is an avenue for people to get the information they need, either through our website or face-to-face interaction with agents,” said Jessica Lindsey, Extension 4-H and family and consumer sciences agent in Desoto County. “We can help people with anything from A to Z. If they need to get squirrels out of their attic or need advice about financial planning, we can help.”
Lindsey, who originally intended to be a physical therapist, said she could not be happier guiding young people and educating her neighbors.
“When I decided I wanted to be a teacher, my dad suggested I apply for this job,” said Lindsey, who was a member of 4-H. “This is my fourth year, and I love it. I can teach without the confines of the classroom.”
Extension offers a variety of expertise and research proven-data that enables agents to help with just about any question or challenge clients bring to them.
“I have not run into a question that I couldn’t answer or find an answer for,” said Reid Nevins, an agriculture and natural resources Extension agent in Lowndes County. “All of the research Mississippi State does is on the cutting edge, and it’s my job to get that information out to the people in my area.”
Nevins, who grew up in a family of farmers, offers programs that show Extension’s well-rounded knowledge base.
“I try to offer a wide variety of programs that will draw people who might not be familiar with Extension,” he said. “I offer cattle and row-crop programs, but we also have a beekeeping group, a wide range of 4-H programs, and wildlife and forestry programs.”
Extension education has undergone rapid changes in the past 10 to 15 years. Agents no longer depend on the postal service and physical meetings to deliver information to clients.
“Extension is adapting as technology is progressing, and we’ve done a good job of keeping up,” said Ty Jones, an agriculture and natural resources Extension agent in Madison County. “But the challenge going forward for us is grabbing the future without leaving any of our clients behind. We still have customers who do not have access to computers.”
The individual service agents provide to communities in a world of impersonal technology is a key strength of Extension, Jones said.
“We will continue to adapt to new technologies and learn the best ways to use them to benefit our clients,” Jones said. “Technology is an essential part of our lives, and we should be embracing it. But having agents in each county is important for the way we serve our citizens. They get the best possible educational programs and assistance to meet their individual needs because we have people there who can listen, assess their needs and help them problem-solve.”
That’s why, Jones said, Extension will be around for another 100 years.
“I think we’ll be surprised at how things from 100 years ago will again be interesting and relevant in people’s lives throughout the next 100 years,” he said. “We are already seeing a renewed interest in self-sustaining skills, like growing food.”