Jeanna Smaaladen’s excitement turned to nervousness when she glanced at the roster of her Rural Leadership North Dakota (RLND) class in 2015.

“I looked on there, and there’s a state senator and auditors on here — all of these I would call important people,” said Smaaladen, who is secretary-treasurer for Grand Forks County Farmers Union. “It was intimidating. How will I fit in?”

At the first meeting, Jeanna sat down next to Larry Luick, a state senator from Fairmount.

“He’s the kindest, most gentlest person I ever met,” Jeanna said. “From that point on, it was great.”

More than a year later, Jeanna is set to graduate in November from RLND, an 18-month leadership development program designed to encourage and train North Dakotans to play a bigger role in their communities. It’s put on by the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

The program involves traveling around North Dakota as well as to Washington, D.C., and there is also an international trip. Jeanna and Divide County Farmers Union President Devin Jacobson were part of Class VII, and the program is accepting applications for its eighth class until June 30. Tuition is $4,000 and can be paid in two installments.

Jeanna and Devin took part with a sponsorship from North Dakota Farmers Union, which is again looking to sponsor a member. Contact Pam Musland at pmusland@ndfu.org immediately if interested.

RLND Program Director Marie Hvidsten said there are three direct goals of the program: Networking, improving leadership skills and understanding North Dakota so they can improve the quality of life in their community, city, state, etc. Hvidsten said a simple conversation with alumni can be enough to convince a fence-sitter to apply.

“They often use phrases like ‘life-changing’ and ‘best thing I’ve done,’” Hvidsten said. “It helps with confidence-building. We’ve had a few folks run for statewide office, and that’s been terrific. If anybody has interest, check it out with our alumni. They’re likely somewhere in your community or close by. And if there are any concerns on the financial end, still apply and we’ll try to help them figure it out.”

Count Devin in among those appreciative of the experience. He wasn’t aware of the scope of agriculture in North Dakota, but that changed with farm tours on the eastern half of the state.

“We learn a lot about communities and what’s going on around the state,” Devin said. “It’s been very good with everybody exchanging ideas with how to make your community better, and Marie has been letting us run with it.”

An international trip is also part of the program, and the class went to Thailand and Vietnam. Jeanna said the class toured fields to understand local agriculture and infrastructure.

But Jeanna also was taken aback by her own state, particularly the energy development in western North Dakota.

“As a young girl, I traveled through North Dakota. But in the past 10-15 years, I haven’t gone too much past Bismarck,” she said. “Having gone to Watford City and driving there in the night time and seeing the flares everywhere, it’s incredible to see how that part of our state has changed. That was impactful.”

The class toured an oil-drilling site and went on a rig, where Jeanna saw a familiar sight that made her smile.

“I’ve always gotten after my children to not spend too much time on video games,” she said. “The gentleman drilling the hole and laying pipe going down into the land was sitting on a chair operating joysticks, and it looked just like my son sitting in front of a TV playing with a controller. I said, I’ll never get after my son again. Their hand-eye coordination is valuable.”

Jeanna’s experience in Washington, D.C. paid huge dividends for the class when it took its trip to the nation’s capital. She’s been to three Farmers Union fly-ins and used some of the connections she developed on those trips to go behind the scenes.

“I was able to have Dan Simons speak to the group on leadership and his role in the Founding Farmers Restaurants,” she said. “He spoke on the values of NDFU and making that the key in bringing great fresh food, from the farm to the table in every restaurant in Washington, D.C.”

NDFU also sponsored a great meal at Farmer Fishers Bakers, which was one of the highlights of the trip.

FLAMES

Part of the requirement for each class is an individual project in their respective communities. Jeanna started thinking of her project early on, and it’s along the same lines of RLND but for a younger group.

Future Leaders And Mentors Engaging Society (FLAMES) was started in Grand Forks County  with the help of Carrie Knudson, Grand Forks County Extension agent. The leadership course is for grades 9-12 and involves real-world tools that prepare students for adulthood.

“How to deal with conflict, how to dress for success and how you should look when you want to present something,” Jeanna said. “How to do a strong (job) interview, how to build a strong resume — we also talk about etiquette. Today’s etiquette is also about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – it is branding. The kids were shocked: ‘Really? My boss is going to look at that?’”

The first class had nine participants and involved a dining experience with Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown, University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy and retired Air Force Col. Barbara Chine. The trio talked leadership and how being a good listener and encourager can help resolve conflict. The dining capped off the first year for the course, which runs concurrent with the school year.

“The kids were so impressed,” Jeanna said. “It was an awesome ending to a great year.”

Jeanna said she decided to take up this mantle while meeting with state and national leaders.

“I want kids that want to be involved in their state,” she said. “They have all of these abilities. I want to give them an opportunity and teach them to understand their own skills.”

She has even been contacted to help write a leadership curriculum that may be implemented in the North Dakota public school system. However, getting around an already packed schedule for high school students represents a problem.

“Carrie and I had to figure out how to reach those so busy with everything else,” Jeanna said. “High school students today are so involved that it is hard for them to find time to be involved in other group activities outside of school. When I approached them, they were excited about opportunities but couldn’t find the extra time. With today’s adults, this lack of training in leadership is what’s missing. This is where FLAMES can help.”

Jeanna will spend the summer looking for funding for the program as it continues to grow before taking on the next class in August. She is thankful for the support of Knudson, Phil Gisi with Edgewood Management Group, Grand Forks County Farmers Union for the scholarship of $500 to one student and the many mentors who volunteered their time.

Most of all, it may not have been possible without her experience with RLND, which started with a friendly visit from NDFU Board Member and neighbor Terry Borstad.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to learn everything you can about your state, about the people in your country and to go abroad and learn about the world as a whole,” Jeanna said. “I’m so appreciative for the opportunity to go. I’m glad Terry walked across the grass and told me all about it.”

— Chris Aarhus, NDFU