A career of service


MSU Extension district director Matt Shane reflects on his first day and his over 20-year career: the twists, turns and rewards.

July 14, 2019

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A Career of Service Transcript

Jeff Dwyer: Let's take a look back on 1997, which may seem like yesterday to some of us but is now over 20 years ago. In 1997, gas averaged $1.22 a gallon, the movie Titanic was a box office smash across the nation, the first cloned mammal Dolly the sheep was born, and Tiger Woods became the youngest golfer ever to win the Masters. 1997 was a significant year for MSU Extension, too, because it was the year that Matt Shane joined the organization. I'm Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension, and Matt is my guest today on Partnerships and Peninsulas. Thank you for being here today, Matt.

Matt Shane:   Thanks for having me, Jeff.

Jeff:    Matt, you and I talk a great deal about the fact that at the end of the day Michigan State University Extension is about the people, it's about the people who we work with and for in communities, but it's also about the people in our own organization, nearly 700 of them. Tell us about when you joined MSU Extension 21 years ago and what drew you to this organization and this type of work.

Matt:  I was very fortunate back when I was in graduate school at Michigan State University in the Department of Animal Science. Right around the time, the Animal Initiative was founded. I landed a graduate assistantship through that program and started working on sheep research in graduate school. Because of that, there were livestock educator positions that formed at the same time. As I was wrapping up my graduate career in animal science, an animal livestock position opened up in southeast Michigan. My graduate advisor actually recommended that I look more into Extension. I applied for the position and was fortunate enough to get it.

Jeff:    We're the fortunate ones in that experience. I know it's a long time ago. You're younger than I am, so maybe your memory is better. Tell us about that first year in Extension. What surprised you the most? What were some of the experiences you had early in your career that you really think have shaped not only you as a person but also you and your role in Extension?

Matt:  Sure. I think one of the biggest things that surprised me really was just the breadth of the work that we do and the breadth of clientele that we have the opportunity to serve. I'll never forget my first day in Extension. I didn't know what to expect, basically went to a staff meeting in the county office and they said, "Here's your office. Good luck," and didn't really quite know what to do at that point. I got a couple of phone calls right off the bat that were just strange things about whether you needed a rooster for a hen to lay eggs and whether you could feed old sweetcorn to cows, and I thought, okay, I have arrived, I'm here in Extension now.

Jeff:    You have arrived.

Matt:  I knew the answers to those questions. I thought, okay, I'll be all right. The first year was interesting. It was just learning a new area of the state that I'd not been to in southeast Michigan much, learning the clientele, getting out and seeing the communities and different types of agriculture that I wasn't as accustomed to growing up in the west side of Michigan. It was a really great opportunity to learn from a lot of people who I met, a lot of partner organizations, and an opportunity just to grow from that experience.

Jeff:    I think one of the things that you and I know about Extension and our colleagues know about Extension that would be important for others to know who might be looking for opportunities to work with an organization like ours is that it's not just one job, it's not just one job in the moment. As you just said, we could get phone calls about anything. It's also not just one job over time in the sense that people have the opportunity to do a variety of different things. Let me ask you about a couple of those. I heard a joke recently about how many people it takes to change a light bulb. I heard that the answer is one, Matt Shane. I'd like to hear you talk about a project that you worked on to produce electricity so that 28,000 Michiganders could turn on their light bulbs.

Matt:  That was a really interesting time. It was a complete coincidence that that even came to be. Through our professional association, we do a tour of a co-generation plant in Flint that utilized wood waste, mostly because of the emerald ash borer issue. That's where a lot of their wood came from. We did a tour of that plant as a group of agricultural educators in the state to learn a little bit about their process and what went on there. As I was sitting there listening to what they were talking about, I thought, I work with the equine industry, at that time, as a livestock educator, and I had been doing a lot of work in manure management. One of the things that's interesting in equine manure management is that the bulk of the waste is actually used shavings, mostly pine shavings. I just asked the question of the wood procurement person there, "Have you ever thought about using waste wood from the equine industry as a part of your business?" They said that actually they'd heard a little bit about that, didn't know much about it, didn't know if it would really work.

            I said, "I think I can help with that," and so went to some of our labs here on campus, some connections I had in animal science. We ran some tests on the material for moisture content, what the heat units would be if you burned it, those sorts of things, and presented some lab information to them. It turns out that, at the time, it could work with what they had. Now, environmentally, some things changed with the amount of moisture and it ended up not being a long lasting solution, at least now, but for the time being we took a lot of horse manure and bedding and diverted it to this place rather than going to the landfill.


Jeff:    That's a fabulous example. I think in these podcasts, Matt, we've talked to people from the food industry and those who work with veterans and the National Guard. We talked about farm stress. One of the things that underlies every single conversation we've had throughout these podcasts is that no one of us does this alone. We don't do it alone as individuals. We don't do it alone as an organization. One of the unique roles that MSU Extension can play is that sort of cross connections among people who might otherwise not be connected. In that example, while that individual at the cogeneration plant may have heard about this potential, probably didn't know how to connect and how to get engaged not just with the university directly but with those who might have these shavings and might be able to provide them. That's been an exciting thing to watch in MSU Extension.

            We talked earlier about the fact that there are so many things that go on in Extension. Since 2010, you've been a district director for six counties in southeastern Michigan. Hillsdale, Jackson, Lenawee, Livingston, Monroe, and Washington counties. What is a district director?

Matt:   A district director is really somebody who sort of takes the pulse of the communities that Extension works in. I work directly with county governments in making sure that we maintain those partnerships. They've been longstanding partnerships for over 100 years and we want to make sure those partnerships stay strong and protected in what we're doing moving forward. Also, looking for new opportunities. Our educators are out doing great work. I listened to what they're doing by talking to them at monthly staff meetings and heard what's going on in the their worlds and maybe where they're looking for some new connections, and then through the work that I'm doing with our district advisory council or with working with other partner agencies, look for ways to connect those two things. Similar to the horse bedding project, it's just looking for those opportunities for Extension to be connected in ways that were not currently connected in those communities. That's a lot of the work that I do as a district director is just networking in the communities and helping to build and strengthen partnerships.

Jeff:    We should let our listeners know that you're one of 14 district directors throughout the state. We just couldn't be more proud of the work that you all do. Really, we talk often about the fact that while our support from counties continues to be extraordinarily important, we certainly receive significant support from the state and from the federal government, but increasingly our support is coming from competitive grants and contracts and from partnerships in the community. Our district directors really lead the way in the regard and we're grateful for all of the work that you do.

            As you think about the last eight years as a district director, are there one or two partnerships that stick out in your mind and that you believe are making a difference in one or more of the communities that you serve?

Matt:   That's a great question because there are so many of them. We partner with all of what I call the likely suspects, our farm bureaus and our school districts and our local community partners who most everybody would talk to.

            One in particular, it's not that unique because it is a school district, but it's a really fun program, a really fun partnership, and it really is having a huge impact, and that's an opportunity that we have to work with the Lenawee Intermediate School District in Lenawee County and Adrian. This program has been going on since before I was in Extension. It's called Bloom Where You're Planted. It's a program designed to take youth with disabilities, both mental and physical disabilities, and pair them with able bodied youth as mentors over the course of the summer. We also partner with our own MSU Hidden Lake Gardens in that partnership. The youth go to the gardens for one morning a week during the summer and they do different projects. They do plantings, they have their own wheelchair accessible raised garden beds that they can work in, they plant their flowers and different vegetable crops and then they get to maintain those over the summer and also do different craft and skill projects.

            One of the most fun things that they do as a part of that is they're the only group that actually gets to fish in the Hidden Lake Gardens pond. The staff, Extension staff and everybody just love that day because you go out and get to have a lot of fun with those kids. It's pretty much guaranteed fishing, which doesn't always happen. It really is great for that program.

            They sort of wrap up by taking everyone to the fair and experiencing the county fair and then they have a wrap up dinner in the fall. It's a really great experience.

            We've had, over the years, a pretty significant number of youth who have been mentors in that program that have gone on to occupational therapy or special education teaching or things like that as a result of that Bloom Where You're Planted experience.

Jeff:    It's a really fantastic example and one that we're certainly very proud of. I think your reference to going on to become an occupational therapist or some role that's really mirrored in that experience, I think that's one of the things that we're often able to do in Extension, sometimes through 4H, but sometimes through other programs as well.

            If I were a community leader, how might I get in touch with MSU Extension or maybe even the regional or district director?

Matt:  I think the first thing would just be to contact your local county Extension office. We have offices in every county in the state, so it's pretty easy to find that local connection. Most probably have some knowledge of someone in Extension in their community already doing that work, so you could reach out to that individual or you could contact any of our district directors directly through our website or other means to start that discussion about what kinds of things we might be able to do together.

Jeff:    Every district director sends out a monthly email blast with a lot of good information and people can Google Michigan State University Extension and look by a district or by a county to find out the programs that are offered in that county. I think it's good for our listeners to remember, district directors are key leaders in MSU Extension for a variety of reasons, but one of those reasons is, as you've given us a couple of really great examples for, Matt, that you really are able to span and make connections among everything that we do, from agriculture and agribusiness to children and youth to health and nutrition and to community resource development. While many communities need similar things, sometimes a particular community needs a specific thing, and you're able to help find the resources often to deliver that.

Matt:  Yes. Sometimes there are really natural connections and sometimes it takes a group effort. It may be across a couple different institutes to be able to find the right people to pull those ideas together and make something happen from them. Yes, it's about starting with a conversation and then looking at where that can go from there.

Jeff:    We've been fortunate at MSU Extension over the last couple of years to hire a number of really exciting new Extension educators and specialists. Given the 20 or so years that you've been in the organization, what advice would you give to them?

Matt:  I would say initially just stick with it. Extension can be a little bit overwhelming when you start. As I mentioned, looking back at my first day, there were just so many things that I didn't realize that I didn't even know. There are a lot of expectations on what we do in Extension. I think the key is just to really stick with it and give it some time. That first year is all about learning. We're a learning organization, so we have to teach each other. Once you get through that, some things really start to click and you start to develop your own initiatives and your own programming that really can expand and make it what you want it to be based on the networks and connections that you've made. It's really critical that you just, as I said, hang in there and get through that first year. Then you'll really be able to take off from there.

Jeff:    That's great advice. Matt. In the fall of 2018, we had the privilege of honoring you with MSU Extension's highest award, the Outstanding Service to MSU Extension Award, in recognition of your leadership, compassion, and excellence throughout your career. We really are grateful that you're a part of the organization and providing leadership every day.

            This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer. I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today has been Matt Shane. Thank you very much for being here today, Matt, and for all you do to serve our organization and all the people who live in southeast Michigan communities.

Matt:  Thanks, Jeff. I really appreciate the opportunity.