There are leadership programs that teach the basics. Then there are leadership programs that go far beyond, coaching individuals to look deep inside themselves to gain a broader view of their community and how they can impact it.

The California Agricultural Leadership Foundation’s Agricultural Leadership Program does just that. The intensive developmental experience for up-and-coming agricultural leaders counts among its more than 1,300 alumni Rep. Devin Nunes; Paul Wenger, former California Farm Bureau Federation president; Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and other prominent members of California’s agricultural community who are making impact both in the United States and abroad.

At the 49th class commencement ceremony Feb. 8, foundation President Barry Bedwell said the curriculum developed by Shelli Hendricks, director of education, and professors at four partner universities — Cal Poly Pomona, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Fresno State and UC Davis — offers world-class leadership information. With a mission of growing leaders who make a difference by being catalysts for a vibrant agri-cultural community, the learning focus goes beyond standard management fare. Major importance is placed on emotional intelligence, self-realization, empathy, motivation and social skills; participants then integrate those qualities into their individual leadership styles to benefit their communities. As fellows and alumni representing California agriculture throughout the state and beyond, this is of the utmost importance.

During the 17-month program, fellows attend 12 unique seminars providing valuable lessons that include classroom, team building and trust activities, with real-time exposure to real-life challenges, including homelessness, people trying to rise above gang affiliations, children with disabilities and California’s criminal justice system. A visit to Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and interacting with the homeless in Sacramento as they handed out socks on a cold December day were two of the many opportunities to hear and empathize with people’s stories.

In addition to activities throughout California, the class participated in national and international seminars, traveling to Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., Russia and Lithuania.

Jared Plummer and his fellows appre-ciated the experiences they enjoyed, which very few people have. While in the nation’s capital, they toured the Russian Embassy in preparation for their international trip, received an after-dark tour of the Capitol Building and sat in the front row in the Supreme Court chamber.

In Russia and Lithuania, fellows learned about the Holocaust and Soviet oppression of the Baltic states. Along with the requisite photos in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square, they also met and interacted with farmers and business owners, visited a bakery and participated in a traditional Russian dance.

Finishing with their last session on power and privilege, the class worked together to reinforce their understanding of how the circumstances people are born into and their life experiences create their stories and way of interacting with the world. Each new experience served to strengthen recognition of similarities and differences, and respect for both, creating a class culture of encouragement and challenge. Through it all, said fellow Brean Bettencourt, they became a family that will stay connected. 

Throughout the ceremony on the Fresno State campus, each of the 24 fellows had an opportunity to share how the leadership lessons have helped them to discover, as new alumna Laura Pires said, “who we are and who we have the potential to be.” 

With a pronounced emphasis on telling their own stories and learning how emotions affect them as individuals, the education team and staff play a crucial role beyond providing seminars. They travel with the class and work one-on-one with them on personal development. Dr. Peggy Perry (professor emeritus, Cal Poly Pomona) is especially involved in coaching, which, although it has been a part of the program for eight years, has become increasingly important to the fellows as a valuable tool in their journey. Perry actually visited fellows on their home turf, throughout the state.

Dr. Joseph Castro, the first Fresno State president born and raised in the Central Valley, commended the graduates, honored their service and sacrifices, and thanked the families. He spoke of importance of diverse leaders who can “communicate effectively and navigate the social, economic and policy issues of the day.”

Throughout the morning’s program, personal stories wove a tapestry of different backgrounds, challenges and emotions.

Steven Filter said he learned confidence and the importance of sharing his story; appreciation of the journey to his goals (“I must turn around and enjoy the view from the mountain rather than racing to the top”); of the imperfections of life, of strengths and weaknesses, convinced that “I know I’m meant to be a leader and I know I’m meant to make a difference.”

Luis Calderon said that “being the first generation in the U.S., …what difference can I make?” He confided that coming from a culture where showing emotion is not encouraged, being vulnerable as the program requires, was a great challenge. Pushing himself to overcome it has helped him understand that everyone has distinct backgrounds, personal trials and motives that drive them. The time away from family and work made him realize how much he loves both.

Betty Lindeman shared her personal hurdles and reiterated that everyone has a story. She encouraged those present to “be our own best servant leaders … in our businesses, our homes and communities.”

Fellows Cherie France and Adam Martinez expressed their gratitude to the families for holding down respective forts during their approximately 50 nights away from home. They thanked employers who looked beyond the short-term inconvenience of brief absences to the long-term benefits of the investment.

The goal of the program is learning and leveraging strengths and improving weaknesses to be change makers and servant leaders in their communities, so that each class creates a service project at its culmination makes perfect sense.

Alyssa Houtby told of the fellows’ desire to “be a ladder of opportunity for everyone” when considering their options.

Seeing the ever-growing challenges of food insecurity among school-aged children, fellows reached out to the Central Valley Food Bank and raised more than $30,000 in six months

to establish a food pantry at Malaga Elementary School in Fresno as part of the food bank’s School Pantry Program. Since they exceeded their goal of the $12,000 necessary to fund and stock the food pantry for a year, they were also able to donate $2,500 to the Evergreen School District’s Food Pantry in Cottonwood in Shasta County, where more than 30 percent of the population lives in poverty. They are also helping refurbish a Little League baseball diamond and soccer field in Greenfield, a small farmworker community in Monterey County. The fellows have taken to heart the advice of Jeff Elder, foundation board chair and Class 35 alumnus to “pay it forward in time, talent and treasure.”

Bedwell advised the graduates: “This program continues to evolve … providing excellence in guidance for our mission. This is not the end of your 17 months.

We want to see more of you as alumni, using the skills and tools gained through the program to proactively and effectively be involved in and benefit California agriculture, be it on public or private platforms.”