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Inaugural Illinois Extension Academy learns organization’s mission through statewide tour

Two rows of people posing, smiling for the Extension Academy program graduation photo.

URBANA, Ill. — Collaboration and shared expertise strengthen any project, especially when meeting the need for current research and best practices that emanate from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus to the world every day.

Early this spring, University of Illinois Extension launched the Extension Academy. Extension Academy provides a professional and educational opportunity for faculty from the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, ACES, to learn about Illinois Extension’s land grant mission, values, and organizational system to equip them to be collaborators in Extension work.

The inaugural cohort class included 14 Extension specialists in areas of animal sciences, agriculture and biological engineering, agricultural economics, community development, crop sciences, environmental sciences, food science and nutrition, natural resources, and more. Every other week, the cohort met for classroom-style learning, filled with discussions, current research findings, and team building with Extension leaders and staff from across the state.

“This amazing group of individuals has spent weeks learning about Illinois Extension’s history, programming, systems, and partnerships,” says Amanda Cole, Extension strategy, planning, and implementation assistant director. “Now it is time for them to see Extension in action and what the organization does for communities across Illinois and beyond.”

Seeing Extension in Action

To end the semester, the group planned a two-and-a-half-day tour of Illinois to gain exposure to the diversity of Extension programming throughout counties across the state. During the tour, attendees traveled by bus to meet with local staff hosts at Extension offices and partnership sites where programs and research projects occur. Participants had the opportunity to engage in conversations about local needs and collaborative opportunities with staff, volunteers, partners, and political leaders.

Day one of the tour took the group to the South Suburban Cook Urban Agriculture Demonstration and Research Farm, which is a food production laboratory for showcasing and developing techniques and systems for urban agriculture in South Cook County. Then, the group visited the Little Red School House Nature Center, learning about the onsite gardens and vast forest preserves of Cook County. They ended their evening in Westchester, touring the Extension office, meeting local staff, and building connections. 

On the second day, the tour headed from northern to central counties with a stop in Normal at The Refuge Food Forest collaboration project with Extension and the Town of Normal. The stop included a tour of the one-acre food forest open to the community, providing berries, cane fruit, pollinator plants, and fruit trees. The local county also prepared program stations relevant to the area to share with the group. After a group picture, it was back on the bus to Springfield to tour a Master Gardener volunteer garden near the Lincoln House property and spend the rest of the day at the Illinois State Capitol. 

While at the capitol, the group enjoyed a guided history tour and a special invitation to view a legislative house session, during which Representative Sharon Chung from the 91st District gave a special callout to the Extension Academy members present for their work and efforts to serve their communities.  

To wrap up the trip, the group traveled south to Cario, visiting the community garden and Rise Grocery store, which address community food access issues. The tour of the state concluded with a tour of the 500+ acre Dixon Springs Research Farm just outside of Simpson.

Extension Academy Graduation

Following a great trip seeing Extension efforts throughout communities across the state, it was time for graduation. Dr. Nickols-Richardson spoke at graduation, explaining the program's history and purpose, highlighting the state tour, and recognizing each participant for their research and work with Illinois Extension. Director Nickols-Richardson has emphasized the importance of this inaugural cohort in chartering a path toward deeper understanding and collaboration for Illinois Extension across the academy.

ACES Dean Germán Bollero also shared brief remarks about his experiences with the group while supporting the program. Lastly, each participant personally shared the “value-add” they had received from the experience, their enthusiasm for the experience, and the opportunities for future collaborations.

For more information on Illinois Extension, visit

Photo Caption: The inaugural Extension Academy members reflect and celebrate during the spring graduation ceremony. Photo by Illinois Extension. Feature photos are available for media download with credits by Illinois Extension. 

SOURCE: Amanda Cole, Extension strategy, planning, and implementation assistant director, Illinois Extension

WRITERS: Amanda Cole, Extension strategy, planning, and implementation assistant director, Illinois Extension; and Jenna Braasch, media communications coordinator, Illinois Extension

About Extension

Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. Illinois Extension is part of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.