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The Secret Sauce

Kelsy Reynaga is a junior at Iowa State, recently selected to be a national Project YES! (Youth Extension Service) Intern, a program I helped start at the Department of Defense. While I’m proud of being there at its beginning, I’m even prouder that the talented educators I turned it over to have created an educational experience that greatly benefits the interns, the military families, and extension. Kelsy wrote me recently about starting this new internship and had a number of tough questions she wanted to ask, most without easy answers. Since Kelsy will likely expect some wisdom when we meet, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on her questions.

What drives me? As I begin my fourth year as vice president for Extension and Outreach at Iowa State University, I find our work of creating access to education to be incredibly meaningful. I feel an obligation to extension’s early educational pioneers to rise to their level and create educational opportunities and solutions for the future. I am regularly delighted by the dedication, creativity, and talent of the people I get to work with, and I want to leave things better than I found them.

Is this the path I envisioned for my future? Um. No. I’m not good enough at predicting the future, or understanding what opportunities might come up. Instead, I’ve learned to be ready and open and willing to leap.

So, is it possible to accomplish everything you want to do? Not alone. Not in a direct line. Not in the way you thought it would happen. Not as quickly as you might hope. Accomplishing things really depends on understanding the fundamental conditions that support accomplishment.  At the most basic level, there are only a few things one needs for accomplishment to thrive: Vision. Resources. An action plan. But the real secret sauce to getting things done is nurturing talented colleagues, making it easier for them to do their work, and recognizing and rewarding their efforts. In other words, our ability to strengthen Extension and Outreach lies in improving the conditions that shape our organizational culture.

As I thought about what to say to Kelsy, I realized I don’t really think so much about “accomplishing stuff” anymore — instead, I think about trying to create the conditions for good things to happen. See you there.

— Cathann

Working toward Impossible

“Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” — Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi

During annual conference, I spoke about the current state of ISU Extension and Outreach. Over the past year we accomplished many things, but we have more to do. The quote from St. Francis outlines a simple, step-by-step approach. Accomplishing what is necessary and what is possible can place an individual or an organization in a position to achieve what may seem, initially, to be impossible. That sounds great, even inspirational, but if you’re like me, you may be a bit stuck on just that first part and a long way from challenging the impossible. What is necessary? What stuff do we need to be doing today?

“Stuff” is what comes in that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step. It’s like the box in my entryway that has been sitting there since we moved in. It’s full of miscellaneous stuff from the old house; I just haven’t figured out where to put the stuff in the new house. In other words, I haven’t thought about the intended outcome, so action is impossible. I just keep tripping over the box; just like we mentally keep tripping over stuff when we haven’t identified what action must happen next.

President Leath has said his goal is for Iowa State to become the university that best serves its state. This week, we started conversations about what we need to do to help meet that goal, but how do we transform interesting conversations into actionable stuff we need to do? David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, says we’re never really taught that we have to think about our work before we can do it. Much of our daily activity is defined for us by undone things staring at us when we come to work. Thinking in a concentrated manner to define desired outcomes is something few people feel they have to do. But in truth, outcome thinking is one of the most effective means available for making ideas reality.

If Iowa State University became the university that best serves its state, what would we have done for our citizens that we are not doing now? What would it look like? If you had nothing else to do but this, where would you go right now, and what visible action would you take? What if we all started identifying every action required to help meet this goal and could articulate the expected results? See you there.

— Cathann

One Thing Leads to Another …

You know how easy it is for one project to grow into another … and another … and another?

Maybe you start by thinking you need to mow the lawn, then you notice the garden needs weeding, the roses need pruning, maybe you need a new plant for that empty space, and before you know it you’ve overhauled the backyard (or at least it feels like it).  Sometimes these chains of events lead to great things and that’s certainly the case when you combine Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with the World Food Prize – you get the Iowa Youth Institute.

The first Iowa Youth Institute is set for April 30 at Iowa State University and gives Iowa high school youth the opportunity to take action in the global fight against hunger. Interested youth researched a global issue and wrote a five-page paper under the supervision of a teacher mentor.  Students with the top-ranked papers have been invited to participate in the institute. Once on campus, they will

  • present their research and recommendations;
  • share ideas with other Iowa students;
  • interact with global leaders in science, industry, and policy;
  • participate in educational sessions and interactive tours at Iowa State to explore current research and issues in international development and life sciences; and
  • meet innovative researchers, professors, and college students working to end hunger and poverty and improve world food security.

During the Iowa Youth Institute, 80 exceptional students will be competitively selected to represent the state of Iowa as delegates at the Global Youth Institute in Des Moines on Oct. 18-20. They will join more than 250 other outstanding high school students and teachers from across the country and around the world to interact with Nobel and World Food Prize Laureates and global leaders from 75 countries attending the World Food Prize’s annual international symposium. By participating in the Global Youth Institute, the students are eligible to apply for a Borlaug-Ruan International Internship or USDA Wallace-Carver Internship.

All the students who will participate in the Iowa Youth Institute are demonstrating that with planning, hard work, and determination, one good thing will lead to another. First, they’ve done their homework and prepared for the institute. But further, what they gain from this experience just may put them on the path to ending world hunger.

One thing leads to another — in a positive sense — also is true for ISU Extension and Outreach. One thing leads to another when we anticipate emerging issues and trends— partnering and providing resources, research, and education to assist Iowans. The very much intended result is significant impact throughout the state. See you there.

— Cathann

The Borlaug Chain

At the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) annual meeting last fall, Doug Steele, director of extension at Montana State University, eloquently stated how every single action a person takes has far reaching consequences. As Doug explained*, consider Iowan Norman Borlaug:

Norman Borlaug was ninety-one when he was informed he had personally been responsible for saving the lives of two billion people. He was the Iowan who hybridized corn and wheat for arid climates. The Nobel committee, the Fulbright Scholars, and many other experts calculated that Borlaug’s work saved over 2 billion people from famine all across the world — and the number is increasing every day.  But maybe Borlaug was not the person who saved the 2 billion people. It might have been a man named Henry Wallace, an Iowan who was vice president of the United States under Franklin Roosevelt, during his third term. Henry Wallace was a former secretary of agriculture. As vice president, he used his power to create a station in Mexico whose sole purpose was to somehow hybridize corn and wheat for arid climates — and he hired a young man named Norman Borlaug to run it. So, while Borlaug won the Nobel Prize, it was really Henry Wallace whose initial act may have been responsible for saving the 2 billion lives.

Maybe though, it wasn’t Henry Wallace who should’ve gotten the credit; maybe it was George Washington Carver who saved the 2 billion lives. What many people don’t know about George Washington Carver is that while he was 19 and a student at Iowa State University, he had a dairy sciences professor who allowed his own 6-year-old boy to go on botanical expeditions every weekend with this brilliant student. George Washington Carver took that little boy and gave 6-year-old Henry Wallace a vision about his future and what he could do with plants to help humanity.  Carver developed 266 products from the peanut that we still use today. And then there’s the sweet potato. Eighty-eight uses he developed from it. He also wrote an agricultural tract and promoted the idea of what he called a “victory garden” to ease food shortages during the war. But with all the time and effort and years that Carver spent on things like peanuts and sweet potatoes and victory gardens, isn’t it amazing that a few afternoons with a 6-year-old boy named Henry Wallace turned out to make that much difference!

But maybe it was actually a farmer from Diamond, Missouri, who saved 2 billion people. The farmer, named Moses, and his wife, Susan, lived in a slave state, but didn’t believe in slavery. They were known as “sympathizers.” One cold winter night, Quantrill’s Raiders attacked Moses and Susan’s farm. They burned the barn, shot several people, and dragged off a woman named Mary Washington — who refused to let go of her infant son.  Mary Washington was Susan’s best friend, so Moses sent out word immediately, trying to arrange a meeting, trying to do something to get Mary and her baby back. Within a few days, he had the meeting set; and so, on a bitter cold January night, Moses took a black horse and went several hours north to a crossroads in Kansas where he met four of Quantrill’s men and Moses traded his only horse for what they threw him in a burlap bag. There in the freezing dark, with his breath’s vapor blowing hard and white from his mouth, Moses brought out of that burlap bag a cold, naked, almost dead baby boy. And he opened up his jacket and he opened up his shirts and placed that baby next to his skin. Moses fastened that child in under his clothes and walked that baby out — talking to that child every step of the way, telling the baby he would take care of him as his own, promising to educate him to honor Mary, his mother, who they knew was already dead.

That was the night that the farmer told the baby he would give him his last name. And that is how Moses and Susan Carver came to raise that little baby, George Washington Carver. So there it is — it was obviously the farmer from Diamond, Missouri, who saved over 2 billion people.

For the truth is, who really knows who it was whose single action saved 2 billion people? How far back could we go? And how far into the future could we go to show how many lives you will touch? There are generations yet unborn, whose very lives will be shifted and shaped by the decisions you make and the actions you take — tonight, and tomorrow, and tomorrow night, and the next day, and the next.

See you there.

— Cathann

*Steele’s remarks are based on “American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace,” by John C. Culver and John Hyde; “George Washington Carver,” by Willliam J. Federer; and “The Noticer,” by Andy Andrews.