New 4-H agent finds niche in environmental education

Patricia Whitener has loved the outdoors for as long as she can remember, so it isn’t surprising that a job in retail wasn’t fulfilling for her.

A Clemson native, Whitener “grew up on the shores of Lake Hartwell, just like, walking around, poking dead fish with a stick. My father is a big hunter and fisherman, and so he taught me all of those things. He basically instilled my land ethic. And then my grandmother taught me gardening. And all of that was always hobbies, it was something you did as an extracurricular activity to your real job.”

But working in retail “was just soul-killing for me,” says Whitener, who is the new 4-H extension agent for Clemson Extension Service, working in Greenville County.

Her husband Mike asked what career she would want if money and time were no object, and Whitener decided she would enjoy working with natural resources in some capacity.

She went back to school, getting a bachelor’s degree in environmental and natural resources from Clemson in 2011, then staying on for her master’s in wildlife and fisheries biology, which she completed last December.

After graduating, Whitener worked several part-time jobs in environmental education and volunteered with 4-H before learning of the extension agent opening.

“It was sort of cosmic. The universe was saying, ‘OK, environmental education, Patricia, this is your niche. This is where you belong in the ecosystem and the world.’ It’s just an unbelievably perfect fit,” says Whitener, who began her job in late June.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Cooperative Extension program, but 4-H has been around even longer, 112 years, says Whitener. The program operates in all 50 states and many other countries.

The image that many people have of 4-H is of kids showing prize-winning cows or goats at the county fair, but the program is far more extensive than that, Whitener says.

These days, 4-H “is more than just the traditional agriculture.”

It focuses on such issues as global food security, climate change, sustainable energy, child obesity and food safety, and there’s also an emphasis on STEM, the integration of science, technology, engineering and math.

Kids can participate through after-school clubs and summer day camps, and school programming is available as well, she says.

In addition, 4-H offers the curriculum for environmental science merit badges for Boy and Girl Scouts, and members of the 4-H Horse Club help to teach Girl Scouts who are earning merit badges in horsemanship.

“So it really develops this sense of leadership, public speaking, public presentation skill,” Whitener says.

As she settles into the new job, Whitener hopes to recruit more volunteers to help with 4-H clubs and programs, and another goal is forming new partnerships between 4-H and other community organizations to help those groups further their missions, she says.

“I feel like anybody who has that draw to the land, whether it be agriculturally or in a wildlife way or in a natural resources way, whatever use they have that connects them with the land, I think it always starts with that seed that’s planted when you’re young. So that’s really my goal, is to help connect our youth.”

PROFILE

Name: Patricia Whitener, 4-H extension agent

Education: Bachelor’s degree in environmental and natural resources, and master’s in wildlife and fisheries biology, both from Clemson University

Family: Husband Mike

Interests: Hiking, kayaking, gardening. Whitener also serves on the board of directors of Friends of Jocassee.