August 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA3

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Building Bridges: Leadership Development for the 21st Century

The "Building Bridges" Leader/Mentor Project developed a model leadership intern experience with emphasis on involvement of participants from minority groups. During the past three year agricultural and home economics faculty have been matched with 21 undergraduate agricultural and home economics majors for an eight-week summer internship in a county Extension office working on objectives focused on leadership development and increasing awareness of cultural diversity. Leadership skill development was clearly evident as measured by the Youth Leadership Life Skills Development Scale. Quantitative and Qualitative data indicated high levels of satisfaction and support for program continuation.

Brenda S. Seevers
Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural & Extension Education
Internet address:

Kathryn Treat
Assistant Director
Cooperative Extension Service

Merriyn Cummings
Department of Home Economics

Susan Wright
Extension Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service

New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico


The food and agricultural system, including the Cooperative Extension Service, is changing and must continue to change to keep up with our fast-paced society. Future Extension educators must be people who understand and can lead change (Patterson, 1991). Horner (1994, p. 15) noted that, "The Extension educator is the linkage between citizen and policymaker, between academia and the 'real world,' and between learners and leaders." He also stated that "Extension educators are 'natural prime-movers'... they can link leaders-in-learning to leaders in the 'real world'" (Horner, 1994, p. 18). There appears to be a decline in the pool of potential Extension educators that parallels the decline in higher education enrollments in food and agricultural science programs.

Demographers predict that by the year 2000 today's minorities will be tomorrow's majority. According to racial and ethnic data from the 1990 Census, 38.2 percent of the New Mexico population is of Hispanic origin, 8.9 percent American Indian, 2 percent Black, and 12.6 percent races other than Anglo. The current county Extension faculty in New Mexico is 27 percent Hispanic and 2 percent American Indian (NMSU, 1992a). Enrollment in the College of Agriculture and Home Economics at New Mexico State University is 22.4 percent Hispanic, 4.7 percent American Indian, and .7 percent Black (NMSU, 1992b). The profiles of the current Cooperative Extension Service faculty and the potential future professional pool lack the ethnic diversity of the New Mexico population. Positive experiences such as internships and professional mentoring provide opportunities that improve the educational retention rate on college campuses and thus increase the pool of all applicants in the food and agricultural sciences.

Project Overview and Purpose

The "Building Bridges" Leader/Mentor Project, focused on leadership development and increasing cultural diversity, was a cooperative effort by educators in the College of Agriculture and Home Economics at New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service. The three-year project was initially funded by a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Higher Education Challenge Grant and the New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service (NMCES). Continued support for the project has been provided by NMCES.

The purpose of the project was to develop a model leadership intern experience emphasizing minority group involvement. The major goals of this project were to provide an undergraduate experiential leadership development opportunities that:

    fostered an environment in which cultural diversity was understood and valued
    increased work force participation of minority groups
    provided opportunities for leadership mentoring and role modeling, and
    enhanced employability and career success in the food and agricultural sciences.

Project Development and Implementation Curriculum Development

A national study by Hahn (1979) was the basis for the conceptual framework for the curriculum and evaluation components of this research. Hahn identified specific competencies every Cooperative Extension professional should possess. The competencies fell into seven clusters: commitment to the job, communication skills, interpersonal skills, positive attitude, program development and direction, problem solving, and self- confidence. These clusters were the basis for development of the project's internship objectives and activities and seminar curricula. Two major curricular resources were developed during the first year: A Mentor Handbook and an Intern Experience Notebook. The Mentor Handbook included a description of project goals; definitions, expectations, and benefits of mentoring; expectations of the student intern; and guidelines for intern supervision and evaluation. The Intern Experience Notebook included explanations for the planning, accomplishing, and recording of documentation for the following intern objectives:

    To analyze leadership practices used in CES or community programs

    To analyze interactions among CES personnel

    To develop a variety of communication skills necessary for leadership in teaching, media presentations, volunteer recruitment, and personal interactions with diverse audiences

    To give evidence of the leadership role of county faculty in establishing and maintaining community/county/state linkages and networks

    To plan, execute, and evaluate a leadership development program, activity, or event that meets a county need for youth, adults, or families.

    To evaluate the "Building Bridges" Leader/Mentor Project.

The Intern Experience Notebook provided interns with the necessary forms and information to complete project objectives. Other curriculum efforts included the development of pre- and post-field experience seminar materials.

Recruitment and Selection

A variety of recruitment and promotion techniques including pamphlets, posters, and letters were utilized to encourage diversity in the pool of intern and mentor applicants. All applicants had to be enrolled as an undergraduate, meet a minimum Grade Point Average (2.5), have completed 21 credit hours of technical subject matter courses in agriculture or home economics disciplines, and have met university basic skills (English, math) requirements. Additionally interns completed an application form. All applicants meeting the academic criteria were interviewed. Although ethnic diversity among interns/mentors was desired, no guidelines or requirements were used to ensure that this occurred. Potential mentors also completed an application form and were selected based on statements of commitment to the project goals and a letter of recommendation from the immediate supervisor.

Seven interns and seven mentors each were selected in 1994 and six interns and mentors were selected in 1995. Interns selected for the project received six credit hours, a tuition waiver, a living stipend, and travel reimbursements. Each mentor's county Extension Service office received a stipend to use as appropriate. The ethnic composition of the student interns and mentors during the first two years was two Hispanic and eleven white mentors and six Hispanic and seven white interns. There were seven male mentors and six female mentors and four male interns and nine female interns. Each student was assigned to a county other than his/her home county to encourage an appreciation of the diverse entities of the state. Interns and mentors were matched based on common interests, when possible.

The Internship Experience

Students participated in eight-week internships in New Mexico county Extension offices during the summers of 1994 and 1995. Prior to the on-site experience, mentors and interns participated in three activities: an orientation meeting for each group held in January/February, an intern visit to the county CES office during the semester Spring Break, and a one- week intensive pre-internship leadership seminar on campus in May. During the orientation session, interns were administered the 30-item Youth Leadership Life Skills Development Scale (Dormody, Seevers, & Clason, 1993) to assess perceived leadership skill level. During the five-day leadership seminar, topics on diversity, careers in food and agriculture, the Cooperative Extension Service, communication strategies, leadership, volunteers, and teaching methods were addressed. Mentors and interns interacted during the leadership seminar to establish goals and plan activities for the internship.

In June and July, interns spent eight weeks in county Extension offices under the guidance and supervision of their mentors. As they completed the required activities meeting project objectives, interns worked across program areas and with agents involved in home economics, agriculture, and 4-H programs. Some of the required activities included: attending a variety of meetings; working with an Extension specialist; preparing media releases; responding to clientele requests for assistance; recruiting a volunteer; interviewing a public official; and planning, executing, and evaluating educational/leadership programs. All required activities were documented and analyzed using the forms provided in the Intern Experience Notebook.

University project personnel communicated regularly with mentors and interns by phone, electronic mail, and county visits at the midpoint of the internship. All project personnel have family and consumer science backgrounds as well as Extension experience.

At the end of the internship, students returned to campus to participate in a two-day, post-field experience seminar to identify and discuss key learnings and experiences. Interns prepared poster presentations of highlights to share with campus administrators. Also, two post assessments of the leadership skills inventory were administered to assess changes in and perceived gains on the 30 leadership skills.

Data Collection

Evaluation of this three-year project used multiple approaches. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected to evaluate process and results. Components evaluated were intern performance, leadership development, and the overall project.

Intern Performance

A standard academic grading scale was used to communicate intern performance. Final evaluations were based on the quality of required items, including. the Intern Experience Notebook, weekly reports, participation in pre-and-post seminars, mentor and intern checklists, and narrative evaluations. The completion of the Intern Experience Notebook comprised half of the intern's grade. Weekly reports provided regular contact and an assessment of progress toward completion of required assignments. An evaluative checklist of 19 competencies was developed for this project based on Hahn's (1979) work. This checklist, as well as a narrative evaluation, were completed by interns and mentors at the end.

Leadership Development

The Youth Leadership Life Skills Development Scale (YLLSDS)(Dormody, Seevers, Clason, 1993) was used to measure intern status on 30 leadership scales. Content and face validity for the YLLSDS had been previously established by a panel of experts. Reliability assessment for the scale produced a Cronbach's coefficient alpha of .98

Comparison of pre-and-post assessments indicated change in the frequency with which interns perceived they practiced each skill. A second post assessment, utilizing the same scale, asked for interns' perceptions of gains in leadership skills as a result of the internship.

Overall Project Evaluation

Project evaluation forms were developed for mentors and interns. Respondents were asked to evaluate the perceived value of 34 different components of the program including recruitment procedures, orientation efforts, seminar topics, and aspects of the internship itself. In addition, participants rated each of the required activities in the Intern Experience Notebook in terms of the quantity of work expected.

Additional qualitative assessments were gathered through written comments on each component, responses to questions about the worth of the program, and suggestions for improvement. Quotes from interns were captured on videotape during post seminar sharing.

Findings and Conclusions

Intern Performance

Students enrolled in either six credits of Agricultural and Extension Education or Home Economics Education. Final evaluations of student performance ranged from A to C for six credit hours. Completeness, accuracy, and quality of assignments were factors in grading the intern's performance.

Leadership Development

Each item on the YLLSDS was rated by the intern using the following scale indicating frequency with which the skill was exhibited: 0 = rarely, 1 - sometimes, 2 = often, and 3 = almost always. The differences between pre-and post-internship values were calculated and averages determined for each of the 30 items. In 1994, increases in frequencies were seen for 26 of the items from pre-to-post internship assessments. In 1995, increases in frequencies were found for 16 of the 30 items. The 1995 group of interns rated themselves significantly higher on the pre- assessment than the 1994 interns, thus accounting for fewer frequency gains in year two. The leadership life skills with the largest changes in frequency from pre-to-post internship are shown in Table 1.

The interns also rated each of the items in terms of amount of gain they perceived they acquired in each skill during the internship. The following scale was used for this rating: 0 = no gain, 1 = slight gain, 2 = moderate gain, and 3 = a lot of gain. The leadership life skills gains with the greatest perceived gains for the two years are found in Table 2. Perceived gains reflect growth in self-confidence and perceived competence in the leadership role. Frequency of skill occurrence and perceived level of gain were deemed important since leadership development was identified as an important overall project objective.

Table 1
Skills with Greatest Gains Pre-to-Post Internship
1994 1995
Skill Mean Frequency Gain Skill Mean Frequency Gain
Create an atmosphere of acceptance in groups +1.00 Can solve problems +.34
Can select alternatives +.72 Can use information to solve problems +.33
Trust other people +.72 Have positive self-concept +.17
Can solve problems +.71 Consider needs of others +.17
Can be flexible +.57 Can handle mistakes +.17
Can use information to solve problems +.57 Can be flexible +.17
Can be honest with others +.57 Trust other people +.17

Table 2
Skills with Highest Perceived Gains After Internship
1994 1995
Skill Mean Gain Score Skill Mean Gain Score
Can be flexible 2.86 Can use information to solve problems 2.67
Can use information to solve problems 2.86 Can determine needs 2.50
Can handle mistakes 2.71 Can express feelings 2.33
Can set goals 2.71 Can set goals 2.33
Am open-minded 2.57 Am open-minded 2.33
Show a responsible attitude 2.57 Consider input from all group members 2.33
Can solve problems 2.57 Can delegate responsibility 2.33

Overall Project Evaluation/Conclusions

Interns and mentors were asked to rate the value of 34 project activity components. Examples of project activities rated included recruitment procedures, orientation efforts, seminar topics, and the internship itself. In addition they rated each of the required internship objectives and accompanying experiences in terms of the quantity of work expected. The percentage of responses given to each evaluative descriptor can be found in Table 3.

Table 3
Percentage of Responses to Overall Project Evaluation
Interns Mentors
1994 1995 1994 1995
Project Activities & Components
Very Valuable 50.8 51.5 53.4 54.3
Valuable 33.1 33.5 37.6 37.1
Somewhat Valuable 15.3 15.0 9.0 7.3
Not Valuable .8 0.0 0.0 1.3
Quantity of Work Expected
About Right 89.2 92.9 92.9 93.0
Too Little 7.2 2.8 4.8 5.6
Too Much 3.6 4.3 2.3 1.4

Mentors and interns also shared opinions regarding the value of the overall program, program continuation, and suggestions for improvement. Comments supported the following conclusions:

  1. The internship experience was a valuable opportunity for professional growth and renewal for mentors.
  2. The internship was a very valuable career awareness activity for students.
  3. The internship provided many personal and professional development opportunities.
  4. Professional contacts and linkages with mentors were considered an asset.
  5. A definite interest in continuation of the program was identified.

Recommendations and Implications

A summary of qualitative and quantitative data indicated that mentors and interns perceived the project as a successful experience. Recommendations and suggestions from mentors and interns included:

  1. Strengthening the mentor orientation. Mentoring is more than just assigning tasks. Although mentors had demonstrated a strong commitment to the program and an active and involved Extension career, it was perceived that a more intensive mentor orientation would further clarify questions and expectations to strengthen the total experience. Interns whose mentors provided regular guidance and communication, included them as part of the staff, and provided them with meaningful experiences had more positive overall experiences.

  2. Continuing to use the curriculum developed. The Intern Experience Notebook developed was designed to provide a variety of educational experiences that not only met the overall objectives of the project, but reflected the activities and roles of an Extension agent. County programs and activities vary greatly. Using a structured curriculum ensured that each intern had an experience that focused on identified roles and competencies and standardized the process for project evaluation.

  3. Replicating the project in New Mexico and other states using other organizations as models. The project was designed to address professional competencies and characteristics in a wide variety of food and agriculture careers. It could easily be replicated using a variety of other agencies and careers. The curriculum materials, seminar materials, and evaluation tools can be easily adapted to a variety of settings. These materials are available through the project personnel. This recommendation is consistent with findings of the Report on Land-Grant Colleges prepared by The National Research Council (NRC)'s Committee on the Future of the Colleges of Agriculture in the Land-Grant University System. (NRC, 1996) which states "the college of agriculture should require students to take at least one internship from a wide range of creative, mentored internship opportunities representing the diverse career settings for which graduates in food and agricultural sciences are prepared."

Project Status and Summary

The "Building Bridges" project, now in its fourth year in New Mexico, is an important investment in the future. Because of the perceived value of the internship and the potential impact on the future work force in New Mexico agriculture, the New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service committed the financial support (approximately $3500 per intern) for this project to continue in 1996. During the 1996 year, eight interns with seven mentors were selected and placed in Extension offices throughout New Mexico. Twenty-one students have successfully competed the "Building Bridges" project. These students are in various stages of career development, but almost all have chosen to stay in some area related to food and agriculture. One student received early admission to a veterinary school, one is currently working for NMCES, two have interviewed for NMCES positions, one is in graduate school, and 15 are 1995-1997 graduates who have indicated career interests in teaching, Extension, or continuing a graduate degree in a food or agriculture area. Positive experiences such as this will ensure competent professionals for the 21st century.


Dormody, T. J. & Seevers, B. S. & Clason, D. L. (1993). The Youth Leadership Life Skills Development Scale: An evaluation and research tool for youth organizations. (Research Report 672). New Mexico State University.

Horner, J.T. (1984). "Developing effective agricultural leaders." Journal of Extension, 22 (Nov-Dec): 15-18.

National Research Council (1996). NRC Report on Land-Grant College. The National Research Council's Committee on the Future of the Colleges of Agriculture in the Land-Grant University System. Electronic transmission of a prepublication report. May 17, 1996.

New Mexico State University. (1992a) Data from Personnel Office

New Mexico State University (1992b). Data from Associate Dean, College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

Patterson, T. F. (1991). "Tomorrow's Extension education- learner, communicator, systemist." Journal of Extension, 29 (Spring): 31-32.

U. S. Bureau of the Census, (1990). Computer Tape, PL94- 171: 1990 - New Mexico. Released March 1991.