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Delegates at the National 4-H Conference in Washington, D.C., discuss what makes you feel safe during roundtable discussions.

Rising to the Challenge: Lifelong Love of 4-H Sparks Leadership Role at National 4-H Conference

Nifa Authors
Matt Browning, Public Affairs Specialist

A third generation 4-H club member, Madilyn Lawson has been involved in the youth development organization since she was seven years old. In April, the Ohio State University (OSU) freshman attended National 4-H Conference in Washington, D.C., as a collegiate facilitator, leading a group of young people from across the country in a youth roundtable presentation. 

USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has administered the National 4-H Conference on behalf of the Secretary of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., since 1927. Known as “the Secretary’s Conference,” the event is the flagship youth development opportunity of USDA.  

The Conference brings together young people, volunteer leaders, county and state Extension staff, Land-grant University faculty and administrators, as well as state and federal government officials from across the United States and its territories. During the Conference, youth delegates become familiar with the government and future career opportunities and share their voice with federal agencies and congressional committees. 

“A key component to the National 4-H Conference is amplifying youth voice,” said Annie Ceccarini, national program leader with USDA NIFA’s Division of Youth and 4-H. “For this reason, the traditions and goals of the National 4-H Conference are implemented using a peer leadership model.”  

A Collegiate Facilitator Team, made up of 20 college students and two adult advisors, is assembled to host and facilitate youth roundtable groups. Each roundtable group is given a challenge question submitted by a federal agency. The roundtable groups prepare a 45-minute Youth Perspective Briefing presentation to present to staff representing the federal agency. 

“The collegiate facilitator serves a variety of leadership roles during the work sessions, from instructor to timekeeper to cheerleader to role model,” Ceccarini said. 

Madilyn Lawson, National 4-H Collegiate Facilitator.
Madilyn Lawson, National 4-H Conference collegiate facilitator. 

It was a role that Lawson was well suited for, having more than a decade of experience with 4-H. Her love of the organization began very early. She follows in the footsteps of her grandmother and mother, both of whom were active 4-H members.  

“They did activities like sewing and cooking, and they got to the Ohio State Fair for it,” she said. “My mom was the last Ohio State Fair Queen before it separated from the fair, so she was heavily involved. She really inspired me with that, and then, when I joined, I wanted to really branch out and try everything. I remember my mom limited me to seven projects one year, because I wanted to do it all.” 

And she almost did do it all. Lawson’s list of 4-H activities is long and wide-reaching: livestock, woodworking, sewing, cooking, leadership, public speaking and mental health, among others. 

It was in her teens when she discovered the opportunity to attend National 4-H Conference as a delegate from her home state of Ohio. 

“I felt like I'd done everything on the state level, and I was ready for more. I found out that the whole purpose of the conference was to make changes in government, and I'm all about progress or change. I ultimately want to work for a nonprofit. So, hearing that I could have such a big influence at, like, age 15 – it blew my mind. I really wanted to get involved right away.” 

She attended the 2022 National 4-H Conference virtually and in person in 2023. In 2024, she expressed interest in attending as a member of the Youth Leadership Team, a group of 4-H members who help guide activities for youths, but discovered she had aged out of eligibility. Instead, she set her sights on becoming a collegiate facilitator.  

Collegiate facilitator candidates must be between the ages of 19 and 25; currently enrolled as a student at a college or university; enrolled as a 4-H adult volunteer through a local Land-grant University; have leadership, public speaking and team-building experience; and be professional, organized and able to lead a team. 

“I knew how much of a big impact a facilitator could have, and I wanted all the kids to have such a great experience like I had my first year,” Lawson said. “I know that they could be making a difference, so I just wanted to be a person that they could go to when they had a topic. I wanted to guide them and give them the best time possible.” 

Lawson, 19, admitted that being close in age to the 4-H delegates was a source of apprehension at first, but she quickly realized that it is by design. 

“Young adults are not too far removed from being teenagers themselves. They both provide an example of opportunities available after 4-H and can better empathize with the youth perspective,” said Brian Luckey, 4-H Youth Development Special Projects Manager with University of Nevada, Reno Extension. Luckey serves as a co-advisor for collegiate facilitators during Conference. “As co-advisors, we often strive to be sure that the collegiate facilitators are treated as adults and not as the youths they are working with. The acknowledgment by the conference of their unique role helps to build their resumes as they enter the adult world – and can lead to promising opportunities for them.” 

Lawson was assigned to the youth roundtable challenge question submitted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which asked 4-H members to discuss what makes them feel safe in their schools and communities. The group was asked to identify concerns they felt were most prevalent among their age group. Their responses included discrimination, mental health, substance abuse and gun violence. The presentation blended statistics about each issue with personal experiences shared by participants.  

It was during those personal testimonies that both the DOJ staff and Lawson were especially captivated. 

Madilyn Lawson (far left) poses with her National 4-H Conference Youth Roundtable members, USDA NIFA and U.S. DOJ leadership, at the 2024 National 4-H Conference in Washington, D.C.
Madilyn Lawson (far left) poses with her National 4-H Conference Youth Roundtable members, USDA NIFA and U.S. DOJ leadership, at the 2024 National 4-H Conference in Washington, D.C.

“I could not be prouder of all of them for sharing their personal stories,” she said. “It was incredible to witness from the other side, as a collegiate facilitator, and I am so grateful that I got to have this experience. I had been that nervous delegate going, ‘Oh, I hope they listen.’ But I got to see that they are. The federal agency staff members are listening, and they care.” 

Lawson was so inspired by the experience that she hopes to return to National 4-H Conference as a collegiate facilitator in the future. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in community leadership with a minor in civic engagement at OSU. She hopes to eventually work for a non-profit organization focusing on issues such as food security or homelessness.  

Her advice to others considering a collegiate facilitator position? “Do it,” she said. “Take the risk and do it. It is so worth it.” 

Are you interested in a leadership role at the 2025 National 4-H Conference? Stay tuned. Leadership position descriptions and interest forms will be announced soon. Email or visit online at for more information.   

To learn more about the Youth Roundtable Presentation component of National 4-H Conference, listen to this USDA Radio broadcast

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