Two years as a missionary in south central Mexico introduced Andrew Behnke to his lifelong mission: giving immigrant children and families in the United States access to the same support and opportunities as others in their communities.
During his 11 years with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Behnke has worked with Extension Associate Cintia Aguilar to develop the highly successful Juntos Program, designed to help Latino students achieve high school graduation and attend higher education. Behnke is also researching the best ways to support military families and minority fathers as part of his work in the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences.
Why is working with families and youth so important to you?
I have a big family myself — six kids from 1 to 7 years old. And I worry a lot about families. I really think family comes first. That’s a big part of my belief system, and I feel like family professionals and academics can do the most good when we support families to be successful in their family roles. Most families benefit more from programs that take a back seat and empower parents and youth to find success in their own ways, and help them engage in ways to benefit their communities and the country as a whole.
How did your time as a missionary in Mexico inspire your current work?
Coming back to this country, I felt like there were a lot of resources that immigrant families were not accessing, often because of language barriers. Many are left out of a lot of different types of opportunities.
You’ve worked a lot of places across the country. What was it about CALS that made you decide to come here?
It was the people in my department. They are simply wonderful people here. Everyone pitches in and thoughtfully finds ways to make each other’s work that much better. It’s a big family.
How does your work transform challenges into opportunities?
In the Juntos Program, success coaches provide struggling students with one-on-one academic support to help them find success in school. Juntos families come together throughout the school year for interactive learning events that help them unite as a community for the success of all of the youth in the program. Youth also form local 4-H clubs that usually meet every other week. Students and their families also participate in free summer programs and field trips like our college visits, family days, and soccer tournaments. All together, these program components instill a sense of accomplishment among the youth and parents, helping them see that they can make it, that they can be part of that solution and get more education for themselves. The idea is to change not just one student, but the entire family tree.
What are you doing now in research, teaching, and Extension?
My research right now is in three main areas: immigrant families, military families, and minority fathers. Most of my research questions are very applied in nature, and much of my research involves evaluating different types of programs and their effectiveness. I also teach three or four classes a year.
You’ve mentioned “evaluating programs” – what does that mean, and why is it important?
I want to make sure that we’re improving our programs and focusing on the right aspects and the right approaches to make a difference. I’ve seen too many programs that don’t make that leap to really impacting families and youth. So we study them to show their behavioral impacts and long-term outcomes.
What’s special about students at CALS?
Their hearts are in the right place. They really care about their communities. They want make a big difference in the future opportunities, health, and wellness of those communities with hopes that those impacts will spread throughout the country. Because of their big hearts I have no doubt that many of these students will make those kind of differences in the world.
The best advice I ever received was…
…to listen to my heart and follow through on what I hear. This often means putting others and my relationship with others ahead of my own needs and wants. That has made all the difference for me!
This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.