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K-State Research and Extension
123 Umberger Hall
Manhattan, KS 66506-3401

April 18, 2023

Lessons Learned by a New Agent

Submitted by Clara Wicoff

When I attended one of the meet-and-greet sessions that was held for agents and specialists in January, I participated in an icebreaker activity where everyone lined up in order of how long they had been working for extension.

As someone who has only been doing this work since I started as the nutrition, food and health agent for the Southwind District in September 2021, I was fairly close to the start of the line. However, there were others at the opposite end of the line who had been working for extension for more than 30 years.

After being asked to serve as a guest featured writer for the Tuesday Letter, this icebreaker activity stuck out in my mind. How would my thoughts about extension provide value to those who had been here for so much longer than me? I struggled with this question until I realized that there is value in hearing new perspectives.

With that, I want to highlight three lessons I have learned during my time as a new agent in the hopes that something I write here will speak to you whether you have been doing extension work for three days or for three decades.

1) I had a mentor in college who used to remind me of this phrase: “People over projects.” This is something that I have written on sticky notes around my workspaces for years, and it is something that I have frequently reminded myself of during my time in extension.

It is easy to get caught up in completing a project, and there are times when extension work feels a little bit like event planning. However, it really is all about the people. This includes our coworkers, state specialists, mentors, community partners, stakeholders, volunteers, and even the people who just stop by our office to ask one of those notoriously unpredictable questions.

Both internally and externally, I truly believe our greatest asset in K-State Research and Extension is our people. The learning curve for new agents can be steep, but it was made easier for me by the many people who were more than willing to go out of their way to lend a helping hand. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space here to thank each of those people individually, but just know that I am eternally grateful for all of you who helped to lighten my load as a new agent.

2) Whether or not you think about it, when you say “yes” to something, you are saying “no” to something else. This includes saying “yes” to taking on another program, task, or responsibility.

When there is so much need for educational programming and policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) change across the state, it can be really hard to turn down a request to provide that programming or do that PSE work. One lesson that I appreciated hearing from more experienced agents during my first year as an agent was that we cannot be everything to everyone. I know this has been written about in previous Tuesday Letters, but it is a lesson that bears repeating.

We may often be stressed about making an impact with limited financial resources, but the resource of our time is perhaps an even greater limiting factor. Saying “yes” to putting something on your calendar not only means that you have to say “no” to using that time to provide other educational programs, attend other coalition meetings, or even participate in other professional development opportunities, but it may also mean that you are saying “no” to work-life balance.

A good number of the agents who started their new agent training at the same time I did are no longer working in extension today. While I can’t speak for them and their specific reasons for leaving, I know that there have been times where I have felt burned out because I said “yes” to doing too many things. Although it may seem contradictory, saying “yes” to doing and being everything is ultimately a disservice to the very people we are attempting to serve with our work.

3) In a continuation of the last lesson, find something that feeds your soul and figure out how you can schedule time for it on your calendar.

As someone with a passion for food security, I know that providing programs about food waste reduction or contributing to coalition work related to the grand challenge of global food systems feeds my soul in a way that helps reduce burnout. I also know that working to promote behavior change among elementary school students (such as through nutrition-focused school enrichment activities) is another thing that gives me energy.

Inevitably, we will have to put things on our calendar that do not feed our souls, but I have learned that finding ways to schedule time for the things that do has made me a better agent.