From a very early age, Sharon Rowland knew what she wanted to do when she grew up: work for North Carolina Cooperative Extension and 4-H. And now, having recently ended an Extension career that spanned nearly four decades, she has made a huge difference in the lives of individuals and communities throughout the state.
Rowland retired in November as a well-known and beloved leader in Extension advancement who focused more on the relationships she created than the dollars she raised.
“It was never about me,” she says. “It was always about everyone working together.”
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Bakersville, Rowland is the oldest of five girls. She and her family lived on an apple orchard established by her grandfather in the early 1900s, after he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticultural science and pomology, respectively, from N.C. State. He also was the first Extension agent in Mitchell, Madison and Clay counties.
During Rowland’s childhood, her father ran the orchard, and her mother taught school. Rowland and her sisters were active in 4-H, and she participated in state congress and served a term as state vice president.
Extension was ever-present in their lives.
So it was a no-brainer for Rowland to leave home for college with the goal of joining the Extension ranks. After graduating in 1977 from UNC-Greensboro with her bachelor’s degree in home economics education, she stepped right into her first Extension position as a 4-H agent in Union County.
“I always knew I wanted to be an agent,” she says. “Our family had had good relationships with agents in the county, and during that era you did a lot of things with your county Extension office. My mom was a volunteer, and when you went to State 4-H Congress, your parents didn’t go. The agent took you.”
In her first job, Rowland worked with her fellow agents and a sizeable volunteer corps to create special interest programs and curricula for Union County youth. After six years in that position, she moved to Raleigh to join the state Extension staff as a specialist in 1983. Her primary responsibilities were managing the 4-H awards program and helping develop curricula. At the same time, Rowland began work toward her master’s degree in adult and community college education, which she earned from N.C. State in 1986.
“Dalton Proctor and I worked with subject-matter specialists on the N.C. State campus to help them write curricula that was age-appropriate,” she says. “I also worked closely with Dr. Barbara Garland as a co-chair of the National Network for Health, which gave me an opportunity to work with specialists from all across the country who were developing educational materials for at-risk children and families and sharing them in electronic formats.”
While developing those grants and working on program endowments for 4-H, Rowland discovered how critical resource development is for an organization such as Cooperative Extension.
“We worked to save programs that would no longer be offered,” Rowland says. “Dr. Mike Davis, former state 4-H leader, and I visited potential donors to share the 4-H story and to encourage gifts for scholarships, awards, camps and innovative programs. We needed to be sure those programs would continue.”
In 1999 she joined the Cooperative Extension Foundation in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as director of development for 4-H. There she established a fund-raising philosophy that has remained the same since day one.
“What you want to do in fund raising is make sure that the donors’ needs are being met and you’re finding a way to make their passion a reality,” Rowland says. “You have to make sure it’s a good fit.”She said if she ever met with a potential donor and realized that his or her goals didn’t match that of the organization, she would help the donor explore other opportunities.
You’d have been hard-pressed to find Rowland at her desk on any given day during her years with Extension. She traversed the state, meeting with donors, prospects and community leaders, assisting with special projects, hosting events — essentially rolling up her sleeves and digging in.
“In relationship fund raising, you have to go where the people are,” Rowland says. “That’s key.”
In 2004, she was promoted to director of the Cooperative Extension Foundation, which presented a whole new world of challenges and opportunities.
“It was a relatively new foundation, so we were really working on helping people understand what Extension is and then helping them find a natural fit,” Rowland says.
In this position, she and her staff raised millions of dollars for all Cooperative Extension programs. And it is because of her leadership that new facilities have been built throughout the state and all sorts of new opportunities – from academic scholarships to endowments for nutrition education – have been created for North Carolina citizens.
Rowland is most proud of the Campaign for the Counties, a massive grassroots effort she helped launch about six years ago to raise funds at the local level for county Extension offices. Through the Campaign for the Counties, Extension has established 357 different funds that provide opportunities for more than 890 educational programs, scholarships and initiatives.
“I’ve always believed that Extension starts locally,” she says, “and the campaign created wonderful opportunities for us to help provide the tools necessary for the counties to be able to raise funds for their own programs or positions.”
Rowland credits much of the success of the Campaign for the Counties to the people around her, especially her staff and her team of regional development directors who work with communities all over the state.
“It’s also about the volunteers and agents at the county level who are so passionate about their programs and the difference they make,” Rowland says.
“You just smile when you think about these people,” she says. “Especially our staff — they’re phenomenal. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve worked with a great team of people. I’ve been very, very blessed to have great mentors from the very beginning of my career … district directors, state specialists, co-workers, and leaders like Keith Oakley, Jon Ort and Joe Zublena.”
Also under Rowland’s leadership, new foundations were created for Family and Consumer Sciences (in 2005) and the Extension and Community Association (in 2010). She also helped lead campaigns and celebrations for the 4-H and FCS centennials.
When asked why she decided to retire, Rowland becomes misty-eyed.
“I’ve thought for a long time that it would be very hard for me to retire, and I’ve been really concerned and prayed about it,” she says. “And as a result, I just knew that somehow I would know it was the right time. There’s a transition period for everything in life, and this transition really feels natural.”
Rowland says she most looks forward to spending more time with her husband and two sons, as well as her extended family.
At the fall joint meeting of the Extension foundations, Dr. Joe Zublena, associate dean and Extension director, presented Rowland with a farewell gift and said, “Few of us can say that we’ve made a place better, but Sharon can. Extension is better because of Sharon.”
— Suzanne Stanard