A recent University of Nevada, Reno and Nevada 4-H alum is not wasting time putting his agricultural science education to good use. A 2020 graduate from the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, Connor Billman is serving for a year as a 4-H leader, agriculture teacher, teacher trainer and Extension agent in Ghana.
The work is part of the International Agricultural Education Fellowship Program of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture. Only nine applicants internationally were chosen to receive the prestigious fellowship in this inaugural year.
Billman’s work, funded in part by University of Nevada, Reno Extension's 4-H Youth Development Program in Douglas County, is part of an effort to empower youth by developing in them leadership and entrepreneurship skills through 4-H, as well as to help the country's farmers.
"The basis of the program is to elevate small-holder farmers out of poverty and hunger through agricultural science," Billman said. "The way that this is approached is through hands-on learning."
Billman oversees a school garden, where he teaches community members hands-on skills in agriculture, leadership, entrepreneurship and more.
He recently co-led the fellowship program's first teacher training, providing over 30 educators with two days of workshops on topics such as positive youth development, classroom management, school-based agricultural education and lesson planning. He works with chiefs and community leaders, school staff and headmasters, and his students and 4-H clubs.
"I believe that as humans we are a bit like air – we fill the space of the container given to us," he said. "In 4-H and as a teacher, my motivation is to give students the opportunity to step into larger containers and develop skills that empower them to be successful."
Billman credits his experiences in 4-H, in which he raised and showed pigs and sheep, and his time at the University, for his desire and ability to positively impact Ghanaian youth and agriculture. Research by Tufts University shows that 4-H youth are four times more likely to contribute to their communities, and two times as likely to plan to go to college and pursue STEM opportunities outside of school.
"The College of Ag and 4-H gave me opportunities, relationships and mentorship that helped me to realize that I am capable and worthy, which propels me forward in life," he said. "In 4-H, I was offered opportunities at a young age to challenge myself and fail."
Billman grew up in Nevada's oldest town, Genoa, on his family’s cow-calf operation, Ranch One, which is Nevada's oldest ranch. From a young age, he was active in agriculture, from working on the ranch to participating in the Divine Swine and Carson Valley Shepherds 4-H Clubs in Douglas County. He writes to his old 4-H clubs from Ghana and plans to present to them about his experience there when he gets back.
At the University, Billman said he found his passions – agriculture, education, adventure and service – and those passions inspired him to teach abroad. As a student, he helped with the University’s NevadaFit Program that helps prepare incoming freshmen, worked as an irrigation technician, served as the College’s senator and helped to start a new student club, a Collegiate Chapter of Nevada Farm Bureau's Young Farmers & Ranchers Program, of which he served as vice president and president. He also worked as a research assistant on a grazing study in Nevada's Ruby Mountains near Elko. He studied abroad in Brazil, was a member of the University’s Climbing Club, worked various other agriculture-related jobs, and volunteered hundreds of hours restoring access roads in the wilderness and delivering meals to the elderly in Reno.
After graduation, the Fulbright Scholar’s original plans to teach in the Czech Republic and in Senegal were disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Even though my original plans had altered greatly," Billman said, "it didn't dull my spirit. I still felt a calling toward agricultural education and living abroad, which led to my selection as a fellow for the International Agriculture Education Fellowship Program. Through this program, I am able to combine my passions all in one place."
Billman spent five weeks this summer undergoing various trainings in the U.S. to prepare him for his work in Ghana, and he has continued to receive in-country training, including cross-cultural and agricultural trainings, and site visits. Besides touring local landmarks, Billman learned about the slave trade history of Ghana and the country's independence. He received Twi language and Ghanaian agriculture Extension training, and he visited a fruit farm where he learned about Ghana's tropical fruit commodities, and how to harvest popo, or papaya.
To learn more about Billman and his experiences in Ghana, explore this multimedia "Faces of the Pack" story. To learn more about 4-H, Extension’s research-based youth development program, visit the program's website.