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4-H clover Early 4-H teaching experience sparks a career in health education

Gabby Fitzgerald and Amber Shanahan
Gabby Fitzgerald and Amber Shanahan

Gabby Fitzgerald is a health educator. She coaches youth in the Twin Cities on how to stay healthy. Because teenagers are forming lifelong health habits, it's an important job with a big impact. Gabby credits 4-H with putting her on this career path.

Back in 2012, as a student at Park High School in Cottage Grove, Gabby took part in Youth Teaching Youth (YTY), led by Extension educator Amber Shanahan. In YTY, high schoolers learn to teach life skills to elementary students. The life skills are related to mental health and illness, peer pressure, the ills of tobacco, and others. As the 4-H teens teach, they gain skills in leadership and public speaking.

"Even if it wasn't explicit, teaching about emotions and character is about health," Gabby said. "It's a way we can talk about mental health with younger kids who may not know about depression and anxiety."

Early career skills

Gabby says she picked up two important teaching skills from the 4-H experience. The first: "Classroom management 101!" she laughed. "You have to be flexible—there's a lesson plan, but once you go into a classroom you never really know how students will react. You need things in your back pocket so you can switch it up without getting nervous if they don't engage right away."

The second teaching skill Gabby gained from 4-H was how to connect with learners when time is limited. "I go into middle schools, high schools and other youth programs and teach about a variety of topics. Building trust is definitely a part of the myHealth Clinic for Teens and Young Adults program, because most of our programs are only once or twice a semester," she said.

She also learned something about herself. "I knew I wanted to be in that line of work," Gabby said. "I wasn't necessarily interested in being a classroom teacher, but I knew I wanted to work with young people."

Gabby studied public health in college before becoming a community education manager at myHealth Clinic for Teens and Young Adults in Hopkins. She reaches hundreds of youth per year in high schools and middle schools across the western suburbs of the Twin Cities. Along the way from YTY to myHealth, she discovered that her chosen profession had a name—youth worker. "I never self-identified as a youth worker until I started connecting with other people doing youth programming," she said.

Unexpectedly full circle

Recently, looking for professional development, Gabby joined the Youth Equity Learning Cohort. It's a 10-week workshop series hosted by the Extension Center for Youth Development and the Wilder Foundation. At the first workshop, she saw a familiar face—Amber Shanahan. This time, they met as peers.

Of this cohort, she said, "It has been really impactful. The youth work field is always trying to inform everyone about having deep, uncomfortable conversations. I'm gaining a lot of tools for recognizing flaws and improving our programming."

Find out more about Youth Teaching Youth

Explore youth worker training from the Extension Center for Youth Development.

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