COLUMBIA, Mo. – Twenty-seven leaders from 13 states graduated from the North Central Cooperative National Extension Leadership Development (NELD) program, hosted by MU Extension’s Missouri Training Institute (MTI).

Graduates of the 2022 program included Tish Johnson, field specialist in community economic development, and Dwayne T. James, CES in community economic development and MU Extension Equity, Diversity and Inclusion lead. Johnson and James received many accolades from their peers for the insights and contributions they made to the group.

MU Extension assumed operation of NELD in 2019 from University of Minnesota Extension. “The program is well known in the north central region and we felt we were uniquely positioned to add to it,” says Dewey Thompson, director of MTI.

Thompson and MTI’s Rae Lyon and Bryana Larimer made connections with land-grant universities in the region. The team created a new curriculum emphasizing three main areas: self-awareness, interpersonal relationships and organizational leadership.

In March 2020, just one week before a cohort of 36 was scheduled to land in Arizona for the first session, the program had to be canceled due to COVID-19.

“We always have one question we ask ourselves when times get tough here at MTI,” Thompson says. “‘How is this the best problem we’ve ever had?’ We knew the program would come back and we were going to make it the best it could be – again.”

When NELD returned for 2022, the program looked different than it had in past years, with a focus on high-touch, high-tech learning environments. Sessions included virtual workshops and experiential learning seminars throughout the year in Chicago, Kansas City and Washington, D.C.

“The north-central region is really lucky to have the NELD program going on, and we were very fortunate to have the open invitation to participate,” said Jennifer Fetter, extension educator in water resources for Penn State University and one of two NELD participants from her institution.

Although she didn’t know what to expect with the program, Fetter said she gained far more than she had imagined, including validation and support with her new network of colleagues.

“I think a lot of us came into the program a little modest … and maybe with a little anxiety on whether or not people wanted to hear what we had to say,” says Fetter. “I learned that I’m not alone. There were some folks that I felt really connected to, that I can turn to for some mentorship and peer-to-peer sharing over time as I run into barriers or obstacles.”

According to Thompson, this is one of the best things about NELD.

“Participants experience deep, meaningful conversations that shape a sense of community,” he says. “It’s no longer a training program where you meet some other extension people – it’s relationships and connections with a whole new group of friends.”

“It’s truly an extension leadership program,” says Fetter. “Every conversation hearkens back to what’s going on in extension at a national level and at your institution. Every conversation between peers is a relatable conversation … and that really helped.”

Planning is already underway for NELD 2023, which may include stops in San Antonio, Denver and Washington, D.C. Nominations will open next month. Details are coming soon.