Nistler Brings 4-H Experience and Passion to Iowa Leadership Position

September 17, 2019, 10:20 am | Debbie Nistler

AMES, Iowa — Debbie Nistler began her Iowa State University appointment as the 4-H youth development state program leader on Aug. 15. She has a doctorate in extension education, 4-H youth development and leadership from President Wendy Wintersteen and Debbie Nistler.the University of Florida-Gainesville.

It was in her home state of Oregon where she first became acquainted with 4-H, a farm kid growing up raising sheep and cattle on the family farm. She has a master’s degree in agriculture and education and a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife science, both from Oregon State University-Corvallis.

After nearly a month on the job, we had a few questions for Nistler. Her responses provide an introduction to her and her vision for the Iowa 4-H program.

What highlights from your extension and 4-H career offer insight into who you are and what is important to you?

The clover has had an impact on all aspects of my life, both personally and professionally. 4-H has shaped who I am and sparked passion as a professional. My parents grew up in the city in southern California and moved to a 100 acre farm in Oregon to raise our family. As the oldest child, I was the trail blazer and the first in the family to experience 4-H. My passion for 4-H began there and I give those experiences credit for my work ethic.

My 4-H experiences led me to a wildlife degree and work protecting endangered species. At the same time I was a 4-H club leader, and when I became discouraged with the tangled web of endangered species work my county extension agent encouraged me to take a 4-H position. From that position I kept progressing in positions with additional responsibilities, advancing my degrees and experiences. One highlight would be my doctoral work on the impacts of service learning on communities. What I have learned from it guides and shapes my work today.

During your first three weeks as Iowa 4-H state program leader, any Iowa highlights?

My second day on the job I got to hang out with Luke Bryan (the country singer) and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds. I was at the state fair and they came to visit the STEM activity in the 4-H Exhibit Building. How’s that for a highlight?

So, my first four days were at the Iowa State Fair. And a few days later the Structured for Success proposal was announced. So organizationally, there has been a lot going on. I’ve spent this time meeting the 4-H staff and getting to know the high level of professionals here in Iowa; I’d say some of the best professionals in the country. Their level of passion gets me excited about the future of 4-H in Iowa.

What excites you about leading Iowa’s 4-H youth development program?

I’m excited to have these 4-H professionals to work with. Iowa 4-H is a strong program with lots of growth opportunities. My vision is to engage with people as passionate as I am – and we have that right here in Iowa. I’m always ready to listen to ideas, explore new approaches and find new ways to grow our program. I want others to be as excited about 4-H as I am.

What should we expect to see from your leadership of the Iowa 4-H Youth Development program?  

First, work to better communicate. We need better communication across teams, in a more organic way, and within the state 4-H office and across the counties.

Then we’ll develop a plan and set goals that will make Iowa’s 4-H program the largest 4-H program in the country. We will increase the number of youth involved in quality experiences by being a welcoming program to all youth.

We will go about defining club and looking at ways to provide life skill experiences with participation open to every youth. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Every youth has different needs and we need to develop delivery methods that work for multiple environments. Ideally, youth should have a long-term interaction with 4-H.  An opportunity to have a positive relationship with a caring adult who is not their parent or their teacher.  

Life skills experiences with caring adults are important to the development of youth. Five, six or seven years can be transformative for young people. Through 4-H we grow citizens that participate in service learning and develop that service into a habit that will persist into adulthood. They learn respect, civility, and how to disagree and debate while still keeping friendships.

If you could sit down and have a conversation with someone who has not experienced 4-H, how would you help them understand the potential 4-H has to positively impact the lives of young people?

When a young person joins 4-H they sign up for projects, something they are excited about, something they want to grow in and build an understanding of. I’d say 4-H impacts young people through the project, and I’d explain the 4-H project as a tool. It is a tool to teach life skills, goal setting and it challenges the 4-H member to learn while engaged in leadership responsibilities. It’s where the 4-H passion starts.

Project work is the place where young people learn by working with adults who have experience in the project area. It’s an opportunity to meet people who have careers in the project field, or who have a passion for the project.

As young people explore a project, learn about it, set goals pushing them to do and learn more, they are learning so much more through the club experience. They are practicing Robert’s Rules of Order, parliamentary procedure, budgeting, goal setting, and presentation and communication skills. They are becoming good citizens.

Stay informed and current on Nistler's leadership of the Iowa 4-H Youth Development program by following Iowa 4-H on Facebook and Twitter. Debbie Nistler can be reached at her office in the 4-H Extension Building on campus, by email at or calling 515-294-8423.


Photo: Debbie Nistler (right) and Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen (left) enjoy a moment at the Iowa State Fair.

About the Authors: