Penn State researcher's work empowers youth to be change agents

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Young people's voices often are not heard, especially if they are on the "fringe" of society.

Fortunately, those young people have a champion in Nicole Webster, a faculty member in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, who's made it her mission to ensure their voices are heard — loud and clear.

"All people should feel valued, included and have their opinions matter, especially youth who are marginalized by society because of their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender or sexual orientation," said Webster, associate professor of youth and international development in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education. "Diversity, inclusion and respect should be part of our daily walk."

Those principles are at the heart of Webster's ongoing research examining the role of youth in civic engagement and social change, especially in the global setting. Her purpose is twofold: to help young people see that they can be change agents within their communities, and to assist governments and ministries in crafting policies that are inclusive of the youth voice.

Webster's passion for helping youth was shaped during her childhood, when her family and mentors in school and the community taught her valuable lessons in self-esteem, hard work, character and empathy for others.

"I was quite fortunate to be surrounded by adults who believed in investing in young people," she said. "Based on those experiences and seeing the impact they had on me, I knew I wanted to help young people realize they had the ability to be the change in themselves and their surroundings."

One of her first experiences to do that as a young adult came in the late 1990s, when she worked as an extension 4-H educator in a county in Virginia that was very diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and socio-economic status. There was a road, literally and figuratively, that divided the "haves and have-nots."

"On one side of Route 50, there were million-dollar homes and individuals who could afford a nice lifestyle," Webster said. "On the other side were immigrants from war-torn countries who had come to America for a better life."

Webster said that despite their differences, all of the parents understood the value of 4-H and wanted their children involved. Webster was charged with organizing activities that brought the children together and fostered an appreciation and respect for different characteristics, beliefs, attitudes and family life. She accomplished that by developing a mentoring program between youth and young adults to help both groups better understand the value of collaborative work and partnerships.

Webster brought the lessons learned from those experiences with her when she joined Penn State's faculty in the early 2000s. In addition to teaching courses focusing on international development, community and economic development, and qualitative research methodologies, she travels several times a year to help youth in the developing countries of Nicaragua and Burkina Faso in West Africa.

"Typically young people in these countries are not afforded access into the community," Webster said. "They are considered low status and have few opportunities in terms of education or jobs. Worse yet, they have little support from their governments to solve these problems. Empowering them to be change agents is critical for their future."

A scholarship from the U.S. State Department's Fulbright Scholars Program, which provides funding for scholars to undertake advanced research and teaching activities around the world, supports Webster's work in Nicaragua, where she spearheads positive youth development and vocational education programs for Latino and Afro-Latino/Creole youths living in Bluefields, a city along the country's east coast. Those programs include learning technical skills and communication strategies to be better prepared for employment.

"What's especially interesting is that the young people from Bluefields have unique linguistic skills because they speak both English and Spanish," Webster said. "If they lived in the United States, those skills would afford them job opportunities. But in their own communities, these same young people are marginalized."

Webster's studies also frequently take her to Burkina Faso, where youth activists were the driving force behind a political uprising in October 2014. Public outcry and protests forced the ousting of long-serving ruler Blaise Compaore, who was accused of corruption and nepotism during his 27-year-long regime.

"This is such an interesting place to study young people and engagement because they were the ones on the front lines, organizing peaceful marches and protests," she said. "They were the ones calling for change and using the few resources they have available, such as social media, fliers and signs, to spread their message over a large region."

Webster was with those activists during their protests and continues to guide them as they work with the new government's Ministry of Labour, Employment and Youth to establish polices that are inclusive of young people in the employment sector.

Several of the group's recommendations, including job preparation and mentoring programs, have been implemented and have resulted in organized efforts for greater numbers of youth in the employment sector. In addition, one of the youth activists Webster mentored was hired by the government to ensure the concerns of youth are addressed.

"The skills he gained as an organizer and communicator during the revolution were instrumental in his appointment," she said. "When I see young people like him realize their potential, I know the work I'm doing has an impact."

Webster plans to continue to have a positive impact on youth domestically and globally as she continues her research on civic engagement in marginalized communities in Latin America and parts of West Africa. She also imparts the knowledge she's gained to colleagues, government leaders and youth activists.

"I want to be a conduit for helping young people who have been voiceless for so long know that they do have a voice, and that their voice is meaningful, powerful and can be heard," Webster said.

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Last Updated August 31, 2017