- Author: Mike Hsu
Between 4th and 8th grade, Brent Hales had acquired from those years in 4-H a lifetime's worth of skills, a group of lifelong friends, an expanded perspective on the world – and the track suit of his dreams.
The middle child of seven kids, young Brent knew his family couldn't afford to buy a track suit off the rack. So he saved up money, bought the Navy blue fabric and pattern, and took on sewing as one of his many 4-H projects during the 1980s. Just one problem: he ended up making it inside-out, with the fuzzy side facing outward.
“And then, by the time I actually completed it, I had outgrown it, so I gave it to my younger brother,” Hales recalled with a laugh.
Hales still enjoys sewing, although he rarely finds time for it, given his many duties as UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' associate vice president for research and Cooperative Extension.
One of his responsibilities is helping to oversee the 4-H program in California, which, along with its counterparts across the country, is celebrating National 4-H Week Oct. 1–7. In a recent interview, Hales shared some of his favorite experiences as a 4-H club member growing up in Aurora, Utah, as well as some of the enduring impacts from his participation.
The mere mention of 4-H must bring back a torrent of memories, images and stories. Can you share one experience that stands out for you?
At the end of the summers, the leader of our horse club, Dan Thompson, would take us on a weeklong horse ride. In order to qualify, you had to demonstrate horsemanship, you had to be able to take care of your horse, and show a certain amount of leadership.
Dan had the kids take the lead; he planned the route but then he would ride in the back. Each day of the horse ride, we would take turns at various aspects of leadership within the week. We would get to a point and we would discuss where we were going; we would discuss points along the trail that we needed to be looking for. But, invariably, all with him in the back, allowing us to lead. He wanted us to lead the whole thing.
You could imagine sending a group of 11-, 12-, 13-year-old kids on a weeklong horse ride with a guy would be daunting enough. But the most important thing you need to understand is the amount of trust that we had in him, he had in us, and our parents had in him – because Dan was blind.
He had gone blind late in life. He knew the trails well enough that he could describe what we were going to see, and he could describe where we were going to stay, but he left it up to us to share information and lead.
You think about the types of skills that it taught us – I have cold chills thinking about that – and the confidence that it instilled in us was so powerful. In a community where less than half of the kids went on to a four-year degree program, all 11 of us in the horse club completed four-year degrees, and all of us are continuing to be very successful.
In addition to leadership skills, public-speaking skills, sewing skills and horsemanship…what else did 4-H teach you?
We actually got involved quite a bit in the arts – the visual arts, the performing arts. Because of that, I went to college on a vocal performance scholarship, which I tie right back to 4-H.
We put on an annual musical at the county fair, which translated to being involved in musicals at school and other performing groups. It paved the way for me to go to a much better school than probably was in my academic trajectory otherwise, so I went to BYU as an undergrad.
I realized very quickly how out-classed I was in terms of the vocal performance and ultimately changed majors – but I stayed involved and had the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling and touring with various musical groups. In the last three years, I've sang at both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, as part of ensembles and groups. What a long tail my 4-H involvement has had, in encouraging my love of music and of performing!
In what other ways did 4-H shape who you are today, personally and in your career trajectory?
My hometown of Aurora was settled by my fourth great-grandfather, so I was actually related to about 85% of that small town. And so I had a very myopic view of what the world looked like.
What 4-H did was it showed me that there's a much larger world out there. Because of 4-H, I engaged with different kids from different backgrounds, different ideologies, different life expectations than that of my own. And it opened a world I never knew existed, number one, and that I had a place in that world.
So the thought of moving from my safe, rural community…when I was a little kid, that was the last thing that I wanted. But after engaging with kids from not just across Utah, not just across the country, but across the world, it created a hunger in me to learn and to know and to experience. And that has yet to be satisfied!
Every time I remember and relive my 4-H years, I'm reminded of why I do this job – to enable others, perhaps, to be that kid that I was, and see beyond what their worldview is, or the limitations of their culture, identity and hometown.
On top of your 4-H role as a part of the leadership team at UC ANR, you're also on the strategic planning board for the national 4-H organization. How has 4-H continued to evolve over the years?
With COVID, when I was at Penn State, we shifted online and we saw a whole new generation of kids who would not have ever joined 4-H as a result. We created statewide programs, instead of the traditional clubs, and that brought together kids who normally would not have been drawn to it. And instead of meeting face-to-face, we met virtually and we sent out activity boxes ahead of time. Then, post-COVID, what surprised us is that the online clubs – the clubs we kind of anticipated going away – those actually continued to grow.
So how we reach the kids has evolved as much as the type of kids that we are seeing come in. And it has had to – if we marketed 4-H to an ever-shrinking rural population of on-farm kids, it would quickly become irrelevant. And so the way we market to them, the way we bring them in, the way we encourage and facilitate discussion, the way topics and areas of interest are identified – those continue to evolve and I hope will drive the next iteration of what 4-H looks like. Because it doesn't look anything like what I grew up with – granted, that was a long time ago, over 40 years ago! And I would say in 10 years 4-H probably won't look like what it looks like now. And that's a good thing./h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>