Connor Billman was selected in spring as an International Agricultural Education Fellowship Program fellow for the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture.
Through the fellowship program, Connor is serving for a year as a 4-H leader, agriculture teacher and Extension agent in Ghana. His work, funded in part by University of Nevada, Reno Extension's Douglas County 4-H Leaders Council, is part of an effort to empower youth by developing in them leadership and entrepreneurship skills through 4-H, and to help the country's farmers.
"The basis of the [fellowship] program is to elevate small-holder farmers out of poverty and hunger through agricultural science," Connor said. "The way that this is approached is through hands-on learning."
The hands-on learning opportunities Connor is providing are key to the fellowship's mission and are made possible by partnership.
"Working with strong partners like 4-H Ghana and AgriCorps to improve school-based agriculture education, that’s really the mission," Jessica Spence, who coordinates the fellowship program, said. "The fellows, by being part of that boots-on-the-ground effort, are a huge part of how we do that."
Connor's selection for this honor comes on the heels of his earning in 2020 a bachelor's degree in agricultural science from the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources, as well as a Fulbright Scholar Award.
Only nine were chosen from among numerous applicants to receive this fellowship this inaugural year. The fellowship work combines several of Connor's passions – agriculture, education, adventure and service – and it is those passions that inspired him to teach abroad after graduation.
But first, a change in a change of plans
In 2020, Connor received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award to teach English at a secondary school in the countryside of the Czech Republic.
In an article about the award, Connor said, "Having taught in a variety of teaching settings from substitute teaching to being a dairy educator, I am ready to start my English teaching adventure in the Czech Republic. As an agriculture major, I am excited to learn about the ag practices in the Czech Republic and how agriculture is incorporated in their school systems."
It was anticipated that his teaching duties would keep him busy 20 hours per week, leaving time for him to run clubs for and engage with the community. However, the Fulbright Program was suspended worldwide in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Fulbright participants such as Connor were offered the opportunity to reschedule or defer their grants.
Despite the pandemic, Connor still wanted to teach abroad. So, he planned to go to Senegal as an agricultural Extension agent with the Peace Corps. However, the Peace Corps suspended operations globally in March 2020 and has yet to resume them. But Connor couldn't wait.
"Even though my original plans had altered greatly, it didn't dull my spirit," he said. "I have still felt a calling toward agricultural education and living abroad, which has led to my selection as a fellow in the International Agricultural Education Fellowship Program."
After this change in a change of plans, Connor's teaching abroad adventure finally began, not in 2020 but in 2021, and not in the Czech Republic or in Senegal but in Ghana.
Connor's fellowship in Ghana is not an easy job.
It requires him to work daily during the school year, helping his community improve youth and agriculture development by putting on in- and after-school trainings for youth and trainings in the community for people of all ages.
"The four components to the teaching model we are using are classroom/laboratory learning, home-based entrepreneurship projects, leadership development and a school-based demonstration garden," he said.
Connor oversees the school garden, where community members learn hands-on skills in agriculture, leadership, entrepreneurship and more.
Train the trainer
"In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn." ~Phil Collins
Connor spent five weeks this summer undergoing various trainings in the U.S. to prepare him for his work in Ghana, and he's continued to receive in-country training, including cross-cultural and agricultural trainings, and site visits.
As part of his cross-cultural training, Connor toured the city of Accra, including the over 100-year-old Wesley Cathedral, the Jamestown area, chiefs' palaces and Independence Square. He 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. There, he learned about Ghana's tropical fruit commodities, and how to harvest popo, or papaya.
Connor also went on several adventures with his fellow fellows, such as taking a morning mountain hike and going for a swim in Boti Falls, before he geared up to go to his community for the first time.
Already Connor has settled in with his host family, and he's met with chiefs and community leaders, school staff and headmasters, and his students and 4-H clubs. He's had success leading 4-H meetings, and the school garden he oversees is thriving under his leadership and care.
Connor recently led the fellowship program's first teacher training with fellow Sherrie Ray. The training provided more than 30 teachers with two days of workshops on topics such as positive youth development, classroom management, school-based agricultural education and lesson planning.
Fellowship Program Director Jack Elliot said, "You have to have [a background of higher education in agriculture] if you’re going to make a difference in agriculture and production."
From Genoa to Ghana with love
But Connor's agriculture background started long before college.
He was born and raised in northern Nevada, where he 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, Connor has been active in agriculture, from working on the ranch to participating in the College's 4-H Youth Development Program, offered by its Extension unit, and the Carson Valley Chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA).
"I have been greatly affiliated with 4-H," Connor said, "showing animals at the Nevada Junior Livestock Show for five years, going to 4-H Camp, livestock judging and doing FFA."
With FFA, Connor raised cows for market and for show.
Through the College's Extension office in Douglas County, Connor participated in the Divine Swine and Carson Valley Shepherds 4-H Clubs, raising for market and showing both pigs and sheep. He earned awards for his animals and for his showmanship. He writes to his old 4-H Clubs from Ghana and plans to present to them about his experience there when he gets back.
A real wise guy
"Agriculture is our wisest pursuit." ~Thomas Jefferson
During his time at the University, Connor continued his involvement with Nevada agriculture.
He joined the College, where he studied agricultural science, helped with its NevadaFit Program, worked as an irrigation technician, learned about animal behavior from Temple Grandin, served as its senator and helped to start a new student club, a Collegiate Chapter of Nevada Farm Bureau's Young Farmers & Ranchers Program (YF&R).
As the College's senator, Connor represented the University's 20,000 undergraduate students and helped to manage the student government's $2 million budget. A founding board member of the YF&R club, which receives support from the student government, he served as vice president and president.
While a student, Connor's achievements, opportunities and career advancements were many.
He earned a Nevada Heritage Foundation Scholarship from the Nevada Farm Bureau and the highest degree achievable in the Future Farmers of America organization, an American Degree.
He attended the Agriculture Future of America Leaders Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, where he learned agriculture educator skills that he said prepared him for an internship with Cargill as a food safety, quality and regulatory technician.
Connor also worked with the Nevada Department of Agriculture as an Ag in the Classroom presenter and dairy educator, traveling around northern Nevada, teaching Nevadas where food comes from. In another role with the Department, Connor worked as an environmental inspector, ensuring pesticide retailers and applicators were operating in line with federal regulations on safety.
Closer to home, Connor volunteered as a Meals on Wheels Washoe County delivery driver, bringing food to local elders weekly, and served as a teaching assistant for the College of Science's Biology Department.
A man of many adventures
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all” ~Helen Keller
The adventure-loving undergrad was also a member of the University's Climbing Club and earned his Wilderness First Responder Certification.
Connor took time to study abroad in Brazil as well, where he stayed with a host family and learned about sustainable, local agriculture operations there. His travels also took him to the Jarbidge wilderness near Elko, where he volunteered over 500 hours with The Great Basin Institute to restore parts of an access road.
After graduation, Connor spent more than 100 days backpacking, camping and guiding backpacking trips. He worked with Teton Valley Ranch Camp in Dubois, Wyoming, where he helped provide inspiring Western adventures, and with Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Durango, Colorado, where he helped struggling young adults and families.
Connor also worked as a research assistant with the College on a grazing study in Nevada's Ruby Mountains near Elko. The aim of the project, which is led by doctoral student Tracy Shane, is to help address the widespread problem of frequent and large wildfires on Nevada rangelands by using technology to see how sheep and cattle grazing might help control cheatgrass, a highly flammable invasive weed.
Professor Barry Perryman, a collaborator on the project and the chair of the department from which Connor graduated, said that fall-targeted grazing reduces the chance that a wildfire will occur and helps us to fight any that do.
"It might even help save a life or some property," he said.
Connor said studying it was fun.
"Did we have a truck with a tail gate that stayed on? No, but who needs that when you're having a good time."
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