The 4-H Life Inspires Expert Event Planner

AMES, Iowa--The projects, the judging, the youth conferences and the presentations in the life of a 4-H’er are valuable experiences that build more than leadership and communication skills. They also can inspire career choices and life-long interests.

“Learning by doing” is something Jen Tabke did since her days as a young 4-H’er. Now, as a coordinator for Conference Planning and Management at Iowa State University Extension, she has the opportunity to use her communication and management expertise while constantly learning about an array of topics, from Barilla pasta to work zone safety.

“Being able to learn new things all the time allows me to capitalize on my strengths,” she said. “In 4-H, you’re able to dabble and learn a little about a lot of things. I knew that if I really enjoyed something, there were opportunities for me to grow and expand. 4-H gave me the tools to carve out a career.”

Tabke gains new knowledge every time she starts a conference plan, because she researches each topic to compose a successful event. She said she learns about things that normally never would have been part of her knowledge– like shade trees, motorcycles and work zone safety.

“I enjoy the different things I do every day,” Tabke said. “I like to say I learn by osmosis. Being constantly around different things, I need to learn a little about all of them to have a basic understanding.”

Through her conference planning experience, she met a man who traveled the world studying centuries-old trees. She also shared information about the Ames Barilla pasta factory with conferences attendees who were residents of the Italian city where Barilla is headquartered, among other day-to-day chores. Her experiences taught her to “never be afraid to try anything, because the more you do, the more knowledge you have.”

This makes her a jack-of-all-trades, but she always builds from her communication and management skills that began in her 4-H days.

“The beauty of 4-H is that you can test things out,” she said. “You’re able to try different things through trial and error in a safe environment – one where no one wants you to fail.”

Tabke, a native of Moville, Iowa, graduated from Iowa State with a degree in public service administration and went to Texas A&M University, College Station, for her master's in leadership development. Her next move brought her to Wisconsin to serve as a 4-H agent. She then worked with Iowa State University Extension in Northwest Iowa before she took a job with Conference Planning and Management in 2006.

“During college I wasn’t 100 percent sure what I wanted to do. However, I knew I enjoyed working for Extension because it promoted informal education,” she said.

This informal education is something ISU Extension promotes throughout the state by communicating research-based information to all Iowans as part of Iowa State’s land-grant mission. Conference Planning and Management provides a similar service by providing the outlets in Ames and on Iowa State’s campus for a variety of organizations to inform their constituents. Tabke’s role allows her to use her management expertise while sustaining the principles of informal education that always inspired her.

In fact, Tabke remains committed to the 4-H experience by volunteering with the state 4-H office and working as a judge at the Iowa State Fair.

About the Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program

4-H is the nation’s largest youth development organization, serving more than 6 million young people across America with programs in leadership, citizenship, communication and life skills. One in five Iowa school-age youth participates in 4-H. In Iowa, 4-H Youth Development is headquartered at the Iowa State University campus in Ames. 4-H is supported by federal, state and county funding, private grants and donations, and fees. For more information about joining 4-H, contact an Iowa State University Extension county office at or visit


[PHOTO] Jen Tabke