Nearly a decade ago, and just one year into his teaching career at the University of Missouri, Jon Simonsen traveled with a handful of MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) faculty and administrators to Chillicothe, Mo. The purpose of the trip was to meet with board members of the Jerry Litton Family Memorial Foundation, which was created in 1976 after the tragic passing of Jerry, his wife and their two children. Over the years the Foundation has supported the development of future leaders in the agricultural industry and beyond.
CAFNR was interested in partnering with the Foundation by creating a year-long leadership development experience that would challenge students to not only lead while on campus but in their future career fields. Students would be met with tremendous opportunities for growth and responsibilities to be productive citizens.
The Jerry Litton Family Memorial Foundation embraced the idea.
“They’ve been so supportive from the very beginning,” said Simonsen, an associate professor of agricultural education and leadership. “They thought it was a great way to continue the Litton legacy. The Foundation really liked the idea of investing in youth who would not just give back to Mizzou, but also their local communities, as well as the broader agricultural community.”
There are a handful of requirements to become a Litton Leadership Scholar, including being a current CAFNR student, being a second-year student at MU at the time of entering the cohort and holding a 3.0 minimum GPA when entering the cohort.
Students who meet those requirements and are interested in joining the cohort must fill out an application and, if chosen, go through an interview process. The selection committee includes CAFNR faculty, members of the CAFNR Office of Academic Programs and board members from the Foundation.
“It’s incredibly exciting to bring these young leaders together and have them connect and work together to develop their leadership skills even further,” Simonsen said. “It’s important to build that network with other students.
“These students are obviously active within their major, but this program allows them to see a cross-section of CAFNR. They interact with students who they don’t normally see on a day-to-day basis. That’s extremely important for our younger students.”
The first Litton Leadership Scholars Cohort was selected during the 2012-13 academic year. Cohorts are chosen in the spring for the next academic year. Simonsen said that 182 students have gone through the program since its inception, which includes the 2020-21 Cohort.
“It’s been enjoyable for me to see where the students who have completed the program have gone,” Simonsen said. “Their careers have taken them all over the place, and it’s exciting to see how the skills they learned through this program have helped them succeed.”
The Litton Leadership Scholars Program offers students numerous opportunities to develop their leadership skills throughout the year. In the fall, students meet with the individuals involved with the Jerry Litton Family Memorial Foundation. The students are also tasked with another task – a leader shadow project.
“Basically, our students are asked to pick someone who they consider to be a leader that is making an impact,” Simonsen said. “It could be someone in politics in Jefferson City, in agricultural business, MU administration, a school superintendent, principal or a local pastor. It’s completely up to them. The students then shadow that leader and have conversations with them. It’s a great chance to learn from an individual who is making a difference in a community.”
In the spring, students are invited to Chillicothe to be part of the annual Foundation board meeting.
“Being connected to the Foundation brings with it connections to several businesses and industry,” Simonsen said. “It’s such an important partnership.”
The spring also brings another project for the Cohort – come up with a project or skill that they want to do or learn.
“This is an excuse to try to learn something that they’ve put off in the past,” Simonsen said. “Maybe there is a skill that they want to learn from a grandparent or it’s a project they want to complete. The spring semester opens the door for that to happen, and it is amazing to witness the accomplishments over the years.”
Simonsen said the 2020-21 Cohort would have some different experiences, as COVID-19 has changed in-person projects. Next year is the 10th anniversary of the program, and Simonsen added that the hope is to celebrate that milestone in a fun way.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to really do some fun things for that anniversary and offer our current Cohort an opportunity to do some in-person activities,” Simonsen said. “We’re thinking through some additional add-ons as well, such as an engagement scholars program that would focus on service learning and undergraduate research projects, among other things. There are definitely some future thoughts that we’re working through.”
The Litton Leadership Scholars Program showcases CAFNR’s “RISE” Initiative, which includes Research, International, Service learning and Experiential learning. The program falls under the Service learning section, which offers mentoring of leaders of student clubs and organizations to excel in leadership roles through service to fellow students, CAFNR, Mizzou and the community.