Auburn College of Agriculture freshman Kenneth Reese makes state history in 4-H

AUBURN, Ala. — Kenneth Reese didn’t know he was making history. He just loved being a leader in Alabama 4-H.

The freshman in the College of Agriculture at Auburn University was the first Black president of Alabama 4-H, the statewide branch of America’s largest youth development organization. 4-H is delivered by the nation’s Cooperative Extension, a community of more than 100 public universities—including Auburn—that provides educational and leadership experiences in which young people learn by doing.

“My very first 4-H club was in elementary school,” said Reese, a native of Jefferson County, Alabama. “It wasn’t as active as most 4-H clubs should have been. It was more like to give kids an idea of 4-H. My mom was a schoolteacher, and I had expressed to her how much I loved 4-H, so we came together to start a club. From there, it just increased.”

Reese’s mother, Vercilya, started the Holy Family 4-H club in Ensley, Alabama, 10 years ago. The club grew and won numerous competitions and awards over the past decade, giving Reese a foundation in 4-H that soon led to greater leadership opportunities.

“When I started it at my school, it gave him more avenues to explore all that 4-H has to offer,” she said. “Just being able to provide him with that, give him the chance to be more involved and see all the different competitions, activities and skills to help him become a better leader, it all became important to me and beneficial to him as time went on.”

Vercilya Reese said her son was shy as a child, but 4-H helped to bring him out of his shell and foster leadership qualities and skills. It improved his public speaking and gave him the chance to be a better member of his community.

Reese first worked his way to vice president of his mom’s 4-H club and president of the Jefferson County region of 4-H. He then applied to become a state ambassador and interviewed for the role on Auburn’s campus.

In his second year as a state ambassador, he ran for the statewide office of Alabama 4-H president and competed for the position with a presentation about the organization’s “endless opportunities.”

“There’s so much I liked about 4-H, but I especially loved the welcoming environment it always had,” he said. “No matter what event you’d go to, there was somebody who knew somebody you knew, too.”

After securing the role of 2019-20 president, he learned that he was both the first Black state ambassador and president in Alabama 4-H history.

“I honestly didn’t know,” he said about the history-making honor. “I just was really fascinated with and eager to move up in the leadership. But it meant the world to me, to be honest. When you think about it, it shows how diverse 4-H is becoming, but also how many opportunities everybody, including minorities, is starting to get.”

Reese was familiar with the Auburn campus from attending 4-H events over the years, but he still took the time to tour before deciding which university he wanted to attend.

“My parents are die-hard Auburn fans,” he said. “When it came time to look at which college I wanted to go to, they definitely made Auburn one of my first options to tour. But immediately I just thought, ‘Wow. I love this place.’”

Reese is the recipient of numerous scholarships—amounting to $49,500 for four years and $13,500 for his freshman year—including the All Auburn Leadership Scholarship at $6,000 for four years, the Dudley University Scholarship at $20,000 for four years, the Auburn University Board of Trustees Scholarship at $1,500 and the Christenberry Family Endowed Scholarship, awarded by the College of Agriculture, at $22,000 for four years.

“Kenneth Reese is a living example of the power of 4-H,” said Gary Lemme, director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and professor in the College of Agriculture, who has known Reese for years.

“Through his 4-H involvement as a youth, he developed into the young leader that he is today. 4-H teaches Alabama youth life lessons and provides them with role models. He developed his interest in agriculture through his interactions with extension agents and specialists, and he will be an asset to Auburn University and the College of Agriculture.”

Reese is currently majoring in agriscience education—a double major offered between the College of Education and the College of Agriculture—and hopes to one day work in the classroom or, ideally, become an extension agent.

Regardless, he sees 4-H in his future.

“I think 4-H has been the main focus for me for so many years,” he said. “It’s helped prepare and shaped what I want to do with my future—to the extent that I’d like to work with them professionally someday.”

His mother said while it is a little bittersweet sending her son off to college, she couldn’t be more excited for him to be at Auburn.

“We know we raised him right and that the way we raised him and things like 4-H will help keep him on the right track,” she said. “He has this willingness to jump into anything, be it an event, an organization or something in the community. He’s not shy about helping others, and I think those skills are going to help him be successful, not only at Auburn but throughout his life.”

(Written by Kristen Bowman, Auburn University)