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Posted: March 6, 2009 12:01 a.m.

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Sit up, polish your shoes, don’t eat the bread

No one pays attention to how you eat your bread, how many bites of steak you cut up, or how your shoes look - right?

As a high school student, I was convinced those rules were ancient history, something we were being taught in the Youth Leadership Institute and at the 4-H winners' conference as things our agents wished we'd bring back to popularity.

Not wanting to embarrass my agents, however, I did as instructed at the formal and semi-formal meals we attended with donors and leaders at State and National 4-H Congress.

Certainly if I ever needed those tips, it'd be a long time away.

I went off to the University of Georgia sure I'd be dining with fellow students equally unconcerned with etiquette.

On Michael Adams' first day as president, I joined other incoming student leaders and Dr. Adams at a picnic on North Campus.

A few months later I met Adams and other administrators at a reception at his home for university scholarship winners.

By the end of the year I was selected as an ambassador for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and suddenly found myself eating with faculty and administrators at their homes as well as at recruiting events around the state.

These events might include legislators and legislative aides, influential CAES alumni or university donors.

At the time, these just seemed like fun dinners and picnics.

I noticed, however, that I was more relaxed than many of my classmates who were concerned over embarrassing themselves by breaking some random rule.

After not only the training, but also the practice I'd had thanks to Cooperative Extension and 4-H, I didn't even think twice about handshakes or which fork to use - it just seemed to come naturally.

In any situation, I felt confident that I could introduce myself and make a good impression, so I was never the wallflower waiting on someone to discover me.

I also found that being nice to everyone I met - not just administrators, but also every student aide and secretary along the way - paid off.

Then, if I needed tips about how to dress at an event, or how to prepare, I had a way to find out ahead of time without asking the person in charge.

While working at Columbus State University, I also had the opportunity to see this from another perspective.

When professors are hired, they may go through an interview process as long as three days. They not only have to teach courses and participate in formal interviews, but they also get a chance to hang out informally with other faculty and staff at a series of meals and gatherings.

Even their interactions with the student workers or support staff may be used to determine how well they fit the department.

I can't even begin to imagine how nerve-wracking those few days must feel to the job candidate.

It may sound like a piece of cake just "hanging out" with other faculty, but whether it's a barbecue lunch with a faculty member and his or her spouse, or a nice dinner out with the entire department the candidate is always under scrutiny.

In this more relaxed atmosphere, candidates sometimes say things they might not have in the interview - particularly if they are nervous.

My observation was that candidates who were already comfortable with the basics appeared more relaxed and able to concentrate on the conversation and group chemistry and, therefore, performed better during the overall interview process.

This week, our Youth Leadership Institute class spent a day on professional development, learning about Web and written communication, introductions, handshakes, table etiquette, dressing for success, public speaking and interview techniques.

Overall, it is probably the quietest and most classroom-like activity we host for YLI, and I could see that some of the students probably felt like the things we were learning were boring and outdated.

As these same skills paid off for me over the years, I rarely thought about the agents and community leaders who prepared me so well for the future.

In the same way, I expect these students will head off to big opportunities in the years ahead and benefit in much the same way.

Terri Kimble is the 4-H Educator for Newton County 4-H. She can be reached at 770-784-2010 or

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