All Things Youth: What we can do now for Missouri's next generation

  • Published: Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023

Column by Chad Higgins, MU interim vice chancellor for extension and engagement, and Chris Riley-Tillman, Joanne H. Hook Dean’s Chair in Educational Renewal at the MU College of Education and Human Development. 

What can a 13-year-old boy from Texas tell us about what Missouri youth need?

Plenty, it turns out.

The University of Missouri System hosted 2021 TIME kid of the year Orion Jean at its fifth annual Extension and Engagement Week. These October summits on the Columbia campus have built focus, partnerships and action around big challenges that Missourians face: broadband access, workforce development, health equity, food security and, this year, All Things Youth.

What we heard this year from child development and policy leaders, educators and experts across the state is that, by many measures, our kids are not doing OK:

  • One in 5 struggle with diagnosed mental health issues.
  • One in 5 live in homes where they don’t get enough food.
  • Only 10 states rank below us in health outcomes for youth.
  • 40% of high school graduates are not pursuing postsecondary training or education, putting them at a lifelong disadvantage for career and employment opportunities.

As University of Missouri President Mun Choi noted, “These youth are us in 10, 20 years. The issues they are having now will affect the communities, state and world for decades to come.”

We must take decisive action now to show that youth matter. That starts with amplifying our individual efforts to help kids. Orion Jean, in his keynote address, “What Our Generation Needs From You,” further urges that all that we do must be grounded in kindness and care to bring the sustained change our youth need.

Through its land-grant mission to empower Missourians, Mizzou is uniquely equipped to lead these efforts. We can provide research, resources, best practices and local and statewide partnerships through:

Here are just a few ways we are working today to improve opportunities for Missouri youth:

A $16 million grant for the Rural Education Initiative addresses the growing teacher shortage. Throughout Extension and Engagement Week, we heard how crucial qualified, caring teachers are to youth outcomes, yet we know many school districts, particularly in rural areas, are struggling to fill positions. This initiative creates an alternative online path to teacher certification and offers more accessible education career opportunities for those in rural areas.

Eight College of Education and Human Development faculty members, including the Missouri 4-H director, have an applied research focus that will inform initiatives to strengthen families, youth-adult relationships, positive youth development and pre-K to 12 best practices.

All Things Youth provides comprehensive tools, maps and data to help communities pinpoint areas of greatest need and impact. MU Extension’s Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems offers coaching and help to use these tools.

Missouri 4-H, an MU Extension program with more than 55,000 members ages 5-18 and almost 7,000 adult volunteers, continues to expand to meet the changing interests, needs and schedules of urban and rural youth alike.

The Missouri AfterSchool Network, part of the Missouri 4-H Center for Youth Development, builds statewide partnerships and systems that support high-quality after-school and summer programs.

MU ParentLink, an outreach unit of the College of Education and Human Development, provides statewide parenting support from professionals and credentialed community health workers.

The Urban Education Research Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Missouri University of Science and Technology’s Project Lead the Way and the Partnership to Improve Literacy through the University of Missouri-St. Louis address issues that affect youth well-being and success.

MU and MU Extension, with our System partners, commit to helping communities across Missouri develop their own future educators, child care workers, librarians, counselors and more.

As Orion Jean noted: “We need our parents, teachers, mentors and community leaders … to step in and be that word of encouragement, the bridge to exposure, our cheerleaders telling us we are worthy of greater, better and more … (because) teaching children how to lead with kindness through words and actions just might change the world one encounter at a time.”

Let’s make it so.

Chad Higgins, Ph.D.
Interim Vice Chancellor
MU Office of Extension and Engagement

Chris Riley-Tillman, Ph.D.
Joanne H. Hook Dean’s Chair in Educational Renewal
MU College of Education and Human Development

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