Extension Specialist Silliman on 20 Years Serving NC Cooperative Extension

One corner of the Centennial Gateway against a cloud-filled sky

Ben Silliman

Ben Silliman, professor and youth development extension specialist, is an expert in family life, youth development, and program evaluation. Prior to serving in his current position at NC State, Silliman taught undergraduate and graduate courses in human development and family life at Louisiana Tech University for six years and was an associate professor and family life specialist for eight years through University of Wyoming Extension. At the University of Wyoming, he contributed to the launch of The Wyoming Children, Youth, and Families At-Risk program. 

Silliman joined the Wolfpack in 2001 and has worked on diverse, interdisciplinary projects in the realm of youth development and program evaluation over the last two decades. One of his first projects was helping coordinate afterschool programs statewide, providing training to afterschool staff and support to county programs to promote positive youth development in afterschool settings. Soon after, Silliman became involved in extension evaluation efforts at the county, state and national levels, including managing the North Carolina component of the National Study of Positive Youth Development —a national study that illustrated how 4-H promoted positive youth development from elementary to middle school and into high school. This was just one of a long list of projects focused on evaluating extension youth development programs that Silliman contributed to. He also contributed to the first study on the impacts of 4-H public speaking programs and a study on 4-H camping programs that used experiential learning as a tool for evaluation.

In addition to evaluating youth programs themselves, Silliman has also been dedicated to studying the ways in which extension professionals can better implement evaluation for those programs.

For one project, Silliman helped demonstrate how 4-H agents could “learn-by-doing” evaluation in their programs. And “as part of the eXtension Evaluation Team,” says Silliman, “I led a study of extension professionals in four states that documented how they became engaged and enthusiastic about program evaluation in their diverse program areas…and reported on their perceived needs for training and support.” The results of that study, which focused on those evaluation “champions,” was published in the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension in 2016. 

Growing demand for evidence of extension program value and effectiveness in recent years was the catalyst for another one of Silliman’s key projects: serving as editor for a special edition of the Journal of Human Sciences and Extension in 2019 titled Credible and Actionable Evidence in Extension Practice: Framing Issues, Contexts and Principles

“My co-editor, Dr. Scott Cummings at Texas A&M, and I were privileged to work with some of the best minds in extension to highlight how extension makes its case for ‘making a difference’ that is both scientifically sound and publicly credible,” notes Silliman. “We hope that our talented authors provided both key insights on how to ‘work smarter’ in evaluation as well as profound challenges to the status quo in thinking about the public value of extension.”

One of Silliman’s key projects in recent years has been conducting evaluation research for Project YES, a college student internship program for youth from military families led by Harriett Edwards and J.C. Johnson. In addition to publishing a literature review and program rationale in Marriage and Family Review, the program model and initial outcomes in the Journal of Youth Development, and a follow-up study of long-term program impact in Child and Youth Care Review, Silliman was also involved in an in-depth interview study with program participants to assess program impact. Interviews for that study revealed how Project YES alumni from the program’s first cohort were applying “program development, problem solving, communication, and teamwork skills” learned in the program in their personal and professional lives, and that the program supported alumni in their transition into careers via “cultivating a professional identity, familiarity with work conditions and responsibilities, specialized training such as working with military youth and virtual learning, as well as 2-3 years of repeated practice in diverse team and leadership roles.” In both cases, Project YES alumni credited the program’s training, mentorship, and leadership opportunities as key to their growth and application of life skills in early career. “I feel extremely privileged to hear and interpret their stories for the extension and youth development communities,”notes Silliman.

“I feel extremely grateful for the opportunity to serve the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences over the past 20 years,” says Silliman. “There’s still more to be done, so I’ll continue to look for opportunities to teach, encourage and grow, and wish those who follow me similar rewarding experiences along that way.” 

His advice for students entering the field: “Think about the people who plant or pick the crops that end up on your kitchen table; those who depend on you to show them how to make ends meet when the ends are pretty short; those who share their precious children with you, eager to learn and serve and grow. Think about how their hard-earned tax dollars or program fees support your comfortable lifestyle. Respect them and give them the time of day when you meet them and work as hard and creatively for them as they do for their families and employers. And God will bless you in your work.”

Silliman says that his family has been blessed to be part of 4-H and getting to know some of his colleagues in their roles as youth professionals. “As I retire, I look forward to perhaps using a few of the insights and lessons from my extraordinary experience to bless others who work with children…and adults, says Silliman.

“My dad worked briefly for extension and always dreamed of getting an Ag degree and going into farming but could not afford college. I am humbled to have had an experience of learning and serving in an Ag-related field and hope I have made him…and CALS proud.”