More to explore: 4-H Exploration Days celebrates 50 years of changing lives

One of the largest multi-day 4-H youth events in the country, the 2019 event marked a historic milestone as 4-H Exploration Days celebrated its 50th year. Over the years, the program has been attended by a collective 150,000 participants.

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Photo by Michigan State University

During the week of June 17, more than 2,000 Michigan 4-H’ers made their way to the campus of Michigan State University to take part in one of the most coveted Michigan 4-H activities: 4-H Exploration Days. Hosted by Michigan State University Extension, this three-day event draws youth ages 11 to 19 to live the life of a college student; staying in the dorms, attending classes and exploring life at a university. One of the largest multi-day 4-H youth events in the country, the 2019 event marked a historic milestone as 4-H Exploration Days celebrated its 50th year. Over the years, the program has been attended by a collective 150,000 participants.

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Photo by Michigan State University Extension

“We are thrilled to celebrate our 50th 4-H Exploration Days this year,” remarked Jake DeDecker, state 4-H leader for Michigan 4-H. “Every year, youth are just as excited as they were the year before to attend this signature pre-college program and it’s amazing to think this excitement has been brewing for 50 years.”

First launched in 1970, 4-H Exploration Days took the place of another statewide event, the State 4-H Show. The vision for the event was born from a conversation between four Michigan State University Extension employees: Lowell Rothert, Jake Wamhoff, Ray Gillespie and state 4-H director Gordon Beckstrand. The quartet envisioned a program that would take the focus off exhibiting projects and instead, place the emphasis on learning new things that club members could take home to strengthen their local programming. By 1971, the true concept for the event had taken form and more than 3,200 people attended the educational, statewide youth development event that offered 65 different sessions focused on experiential learning and personal growth.

Since then, the program has experienced many shifts and changes. Fifty years ago, youth registered via carbon copy forms at their local county office; today registration is completely online. Youth no longer enjoy a square dance, though a modern dance is still one of program highlights each year. But through all its evolutions, 4-H Exploration Days has remained steadfast in its mission to help youth learn new things, develop life skills and experience college life.

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Photo by Michigan State University Extension

“It changes lives – I’m a product of that,” said Judy Ratkos, retired MSU Extension youth development professional who facilitated the program for 32 years. “I was a rural kid from Tuscola County who attended 4-H Exploration Days myself as a youth. Attending the program exposed me to possibilities I’d never have imagined without it. The sessions allowed me to explore new things, make new friends and the diversity of people was something I’d never experienced before. 4-H Exploration Days made me decide I wanted to go to college.”

Other former participants also boast the impact of the program on their life trajectory.

“I engaged in a different environment that fostered and promoted education, the ability to interact with different cultures, learned leadership skills and taught me to be independent and thrive on my own,” said Derrick Harrison, a current MSU Extension community nutrition instructor who participated in the program as a youth.

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Photo by Michigan State University Extension

Today, the program boasts more than 200 educational sessions, many of which are led by 4-H volunteers. In addition to leading sessions, volunteers also play critical roles in serving as session hosts, chaperones, and more.

“We simply could not have this program without the hundreds of dedicated volunteers and staff members who make this possible,” said Laura Potter-Niesen, MSU Extension educational coordinator who currently facilitates the event. “We have amazing volunteers who have been coming back to help with this program for dozens of years and we are so grateful for their commitment to our 4-H youth.”

To commemorate the 50th year of the event, MSU Extension hosted a special reception for former attendees, staff and volunteers. More than 150 individuals attended the function, coming together to celebrate the program’s golden anniversary.

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Photo by Michigan State University Extension

“When you have 150 people from across the state show up to share memories and experiences, that’s when you know a program has had a lasting impact,” DeDecker said. “It was a remarkable night as people of all ages came together to celebrate the role that 4-H Exploration Days has played in their lives.”

Though today’s 4-H youth may not realize the complete history of the program, they are just as grateful for the 4-H Exploration Days experience.

“I have learned so many new skills through my participation and have also met new friends,” said Jael Tombaugh, a 4-H’er in Eaton County. “I have been able to carry everything I learn in the classes with me and use the skills in my day-to-day life. The experiences you get at 4-H Exploration Days, you can’t get anywhere else!” To learn more about 4-H Exploration Days, visit their website. To learn more about how you can become a 4-H member or volunteer, visit the Michigan 4-H website


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