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University of Minnesota Extension

4-H clover A sense of belonging in 4-H

University of Minnesota Extension's 4-H Youth Development program helps youth find the power of human connections

4-H is known for growing leaders and helping young people explore career pathways, but it all starts when youth find confidence and common ground with others.

Teen in olive green hooded sweatshirts stands outdoors with a blue sky, yellow and red fall foliage, and hills behind him.
Thomas Poegel

Belonging through project work

Project learning opportunities in 4-H span a wide range of topics. Many projects revolve around conservation, especially those that are part of the 4-H Outdoor Wilderness Leadership and Service (OWLS) program. Part of the learning experience is the opportunity to share it with others.

That’s just what Thomas Poegel, a 4-H’er in Pope County, did. It started with his passion for native plants and prairie restoration. His plan came into being after considerable effort to connect with local conservationists to benefit the ecology of his county.

With the help of a mentor, he connected with a park ranger at Glacial Lakes State Park. The ranger put him in touch with local seed saver Deanna Massman.

Thomas met with Massman to learn about native seed collections and to learn gathering methods. Thomas then helped Massman gather wild onion seeds. These seeds would later be spread in the park’s tallgrass prairie, with the goal of helping the wild onion population proliferate.

After his fieldwork experience, Thomas presented on the topic. He has shared information with several groups, including other 4-H OWLS program participants who will be undertaking their own conservation projects in 2023.

Eight youth stand close together in front of Cass Lake Area Food Shelf building and sign, several wearing 4-H t-shirts.
4-H volunteers, including Carlos Bauer (right)

Belonging through service learning

In 4-H, one of the four “H”s stands for “Hands.” Included in the pledge is “my hands to larger service.”

In 2022, 79% of 4-H’ers volunteered in their communities.

In the summer of 2022, 4-H’ers gathered in Bemidji for the Youth Exploring Leadership and Learning Opportunities (YELLO) conference. A generous spirit is contagious, so the 4-H State Ambassadors who plan the conference made sure the group could get in the groove of service-learning together.

One topic they addressed was food insecurity. Youth packed food and volunteered at the Cass Lake food shelf, for example.

“It’s something that I really enjoy doing,” says Carlos Bauer of Park Rapids. “I try to help others in need however I can.”

Participants also learned about food insecurity together through activities that put themselves in the shoes of someone trying to access nutritious food. They learned that food insecurity can happen to all kinds of people.

“Growing up in a situation where I, too, was once in need of food assistance, this is what I can do to help my community,” says Carlos. “I thank 4-H for being able to give me that opportunity.”

Two sisters stand on either sign of their "Our future" poster, holding certificates of completion for 4-H campus immersion.
Alexia and Jaliena Forbes

Belonging on college campuses

It can be a daunting task to figure out what to do after high school, but Alexia Forbes of Maple Grove found inspiration in the nurse anesthetists who cared for her through several surgeries she needed at a very young age.

Alexia, along with her sister, Jaliena, who wants to be a mycologist, ended a 2022 4-H campus immersion summer camp with a presentation called “Our Future.” They spelled out goals and pathways to get there. Both careers require college.

“We jumped on the opportunity for them to see what college is like,” says the girls’ mother, Wanda Forbes.

Many young people first visit a college campus not long before they apply.

“We are working to get youth on college campuses earlier on, and to help them make important connections while they are there,” says Joanna Tzenis, Extension Youth Development educational pathways specialist. Minnesota 4-H has offered campus immersion experiences on Twin Cities, Rochester and Crookston University of Minnesota campuses.

Youth explore classrooms and science labs, eat in the dining hall and sleep in the dorms, doing projects to plan their futures along the way.

Teen sits at a table in the U.S. Capitol with two flags, a bookcase, and a door behind her.
Emma Stanford

Belonging through civic engagement

When Emma Stanford wasn’t practicing for theater club or roller skating with friends last year, she was practicing leadership and rolling into Washington D.C. for the National 4-H Conference.

At the conference, young people become delegates, participating in round table discussions on a theme, presenting to federal agencies and meeting with U.S. senators and representatives.

“As they develop their briefing, they build decision-making, communication and public speaking skills,” says Jacquie Lonning, Extension Youth Development civic engagement and leadership director.

Emma, a 4-H’er in Wright County, chose “A nation divided” as the theme for her briefing, focusing on how the American History Museum and history education in general can help people learn to have an open mind during times of polarization.

“History can show us who we are,” says Emma. “I wanted to encourage youth and adults to speak out and ask for well-rounded education on topics like inequality.”

In 4-H civic engagement activities like the National 4-H Conference, youth learn not only how they belong in a participatory democracy, but how they can represent others so that everyone has a voice.

Belonging in the world

Married couple stand outdoors on a deck with trees behind them. They each have their right hand in their pocket.
Mike and Jeanne Markell

When Jeanne and Mike Markell entered the 4-H building with their grandson at the Minnesota State Fair last summer, they found visiting Ukrainian teens and Minnesota 4-H’ers enjoying lunch and conversation together.

It was the kind of exchange the Markells, both U of M alumni, would like to see more of.

From Jeanne’s earliest years as a 4-H educator, she strived to engage urban, rural and international youth with one another.

“I’m retired, so I’m not there, but my energy is still in it,” she says. “And we both believe global awareness is a key to a more peaceful and harmonious future.”

The Markells made a gift to Extension 4-H in 2018 to help re-energize global understanding.

Jeanne’s career has spanned local education and University and national leadership. Mike retired from the Minnesota DNR after a 30-year career there. Together, they led a 4-H club while their two children were growing up, with Mike leading woodshop projects.

Mike grew to appreciate 4-H as much as Jeanne always had ever since being a 4-H’er herself. “I watched our kids develop that confidence that takes many of us much longer to find in life,” he says.

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