Clemson, South Carolina — The Extension Emerging Leadership Initiative (EELI) was created to develop leaders who exemplify professionalism and integrity and inspire others, and as it prepares for its fourth cohort, the proof of its success is in the proverbial pudding.
Clemson Extension Assistant Director Deon Legette said one only needs to look at the strides made by EELI graduates and current cohort participants over the past few years for evidence.
“Many of them have obtained advanced leadership roles, mentor others and serve in various capacities that create impact. All of this contributes to the program’s success,” she said. “I look forward to developing more leaders as we prepare for the fourth cohort.”
After participating in the President’s Leadership Institute, Legette was inspired to develop the EELI in 2018 for Extension professionals interested in developing their leadership knowledge and skills.
While the program successfully launched and graduated its first cohort, Legette knew it could be even better. So, three faculty and staff from Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences (CAFLS) were added to the second cohort for both groups to learn more about each other and strengthen connections between the college’s education and outreach missions.
But it was not just about strengthening relationships in the college — Extension work involves the entire state — so three participants from South Carolina State University’s 1890 Research Extension and Extension were also added for the second cohort.
All told, the program now has 42 graduates from Clemson Cooperative Extension Service, CAFLS and S.C. State University 1890 Research and Extension.
Shawn Smith, a family nutrition and health Extension agent in the Pee Dee region from South Carolina State, admitted she had some initial reservations about participating in EELI.
“I now know that being part of this cohort was one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said. “It has allowed me to take a deeper look at myself and see my potential that was hidden for so long. It has inspired me to become a leader that is intentional about serving and empowering.”
Smith said while the ostensible focus of EELI was for Extension professionals to foster change within themselves that will inspire and empower others to be more committed to their work and values, the people of the state of South Carolina were also beneficiaries.
“Leadership is not about one individual; it is about everyone that has a common goal for a common good,” Smith said. “EELI can help people learn that effective leadership can create an atmosphere that will enable others to strive for greatness. It can produce leaders that will motivate and inspire others to reach beyond their norm of performances and help them realize how important their roles are in an organization and that their contributions are valuable.”
Agriculture Extension Agent Mark Nettles, also from S.C. State and part of the third cohort, said EELI allowed him to learn new leadership skills and develop his “why” — his motivation for doing the job — and those things have helped him better withstand adversity, especially coming out of COVID-19.
“I feel it has increased the value of knowing people on a personal, as well as professional, scale,” Nettles said, pointing to a particular opportunity he got to shadow a younger Clemson Extension agent. “This experience has increased both of our awareness of each other’s extension activities. The fact that I now have someone to bounce ideas off that comes from another perspective is very valuable.”
The first three cohorts came together on Clemson’s campus this summer for a reunion of sorts, and perhaps no one exemplified the program’s benefits more than Alana West, a 4-H agent in Newberry County who received the inaugural Dr. Marlyne Walker Memorial Leadership Award at the event.
Walker passed away in 2022 after 21 years of service as a positive, enthusiastic and dedicated leader in Clemson Extension and ELLI. With the award, her legacy will continue and encourage aspiring leaders to lead, mentor and serve.
Food Systems and Safety Agent Faith Isreal nominated West, citing her commitment to service, having volunteered her time and expertise in various capacities outside of her assigned duties and made a significant impact for South Carolina 4-H.
“During the time when COVID-19 limited children’s and youth’s extracurricular activities, Alana was a driving force behind the development of The SC 4-H@Home program to continue 4-H programming during quarantine,” Isreal said. “She and her team curated interactive daily lessons that met SC school curriculum standards, which were delivered via email for 4-Her’s to perform at home with simple household items.”
West and her teammates created over 50 lessons across five 4-H themes, targeting the advancement of life skills for the participants. This creative initiative provided greater access to educational resources and helped young people advance their education throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
“Alana has consistently demonstrated a passion for community outreach and has gone above and beyond her job responsibilities to make a positive impact on those around her,” Isreal said. “She has a natural ability to connect with others and provide insightful and practical guidance.”
West said she participated in EELI after receiving recommendations from colleagues who had completed the program.
“It was a great way to get to know colleagues from around the state working in program areas other than 4-H Youth Development,” she said. “Extension has grown a lot in recent years, and this was the opportunity I needed to network with new and old colleagues alike.”
West said simply being nominated for the award by a colleague meant a great deal to her.
“It’s certainly not the physical award itself I will cherish, but the words written and read by my colleagues at the ceremony that stick with me,” she said. “I take great pride in having the ability and knowledge to help my colleagues in any situation I can, and I am glad not that I received an award for it, but that they recognize and appreciate the help. I hope my service makes Dr. Walker’s family proud.”
Senior Agribusiness Extension Agent Ben Boyles, a graduate of the second cohort, said EELI is an excellent venue to learn more about oneself and the inner workings of the state’s land-grant extension systems.
“In addition to having the potential to catalyze collaborations that will increase programmatic impact, the program equips participants with the skills needed should they choose to pursue leadership roles within their respective organizations,” Boyles said. “EELI has helped to strengthen the connections between South Carolina’s two land-grant universities that will support future collaborative efforts to improve the quality of life in our state. These new programmatic partnerships will leverage each system’s strength to increase reach and magnify impact.”
Georgetown County Senior 4-H Youth Development Agent Sherry Davis-Livingston, also from the second cohort, said the friendships, activities and experience would stay with her throughout her career and life’s journey.
“The connections made throughout Extension from the program have been very useful,” Davis-Livingston said. “I have connected with resources that I have not had before and strengthened relationships from established resources and newly established partnerships on programming to include both Clemson University and South Carolina State University. As a result of participating in this program, I now sit on the SCSU Coastal Region Advisory Committee.”
Jaime Pohlman, a 4-H youth development and natural resources agent and graduate of the inaugural cohort, said she would highly recommend the EELI program to any Extension colleague seeking professional development.
“EELI has been a great way to enhance my leadership skills and provided a networking opportunity for me to get to better know my colleagues throughout the state,” Pohlman said. “Having Clemson Extension, S.C. State Extension and CAFLS staff participate in EELI benefits all of South Carolina because through this program we develop the skills needed to become better leaders within our communities.”
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