Meet the New AR 4-H Assistant Vice President – Dr. Debbie Nistler

Oregon-native Dr. Debbie Nistler started April 28 as Assistant Vice President, 4-H Youth Development at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture in Little Rock. 

by Chad Hooten

As a teen, Debbie Nistler didn’t believe she was bright enough for higher education. None in her family had attended college. Heck, she hadn’t even heard of a bachelor’s degree. She simply aimed to be an administrative assistant and toured nearby Portland (Ore.) Business College as a high school senior on the same day (Jan. 28, 1986) space shuttle Challenger exploded.

            “I didn’t think I was smart enough to go to college, but my 4-H club leader and FFA adviser convinced me I was,” Nistler says. “It took two long conversations, though.”

            Three degrees and four states later, Dr. Debbie Nistler brings brains and experience to Arkansas 4-H, serving as Assistant Vice President, 4-H Youth Development at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Nistler proved smart enough to earn bachelors and masters diplomas from Oregon State and a doctorate in Agricultural and Extension Education Services at the University of Florida. Her 4-H and extension work includes stops in Washington, Florida, and the past four years in Iowa.

            Nistler, who started her new job April 28 in Little Rock, excitedly shares her fervor for helping youth “find that spark” and how she has noticed its absence in Arkansas 4-H. 

            “We are all about club development in Arkansas,” Nistler says. “The part I’m passionate about is teens and we seem to be missing opportunities to engage more teens. We get them into a club as a young person and get them excited, and then FFA steals them away or that’s the natural migration. We need more transitioning from middle school into that route of doing teen leadership.

            “Research shows the best way we do 4-H is that long-term, incremental experience where they get into a club and then have opportunities to do that 4-H trajectory, from club to national to international.” 

At the 4-H State O-Rama in July at Fayetteville, Nistler enjoyed seeing teens doing state competitive events, running for state offices, getting scholarships for college and all their excitement, but “what I saw missing there was all those youths who aren’t there and aren’t ready to do that, yet. They need to see that behavior modeled.”

            In her PhD dissertation “Commitment to Service,” Nistler confirmed when young people engage in serving it persists into adulthood. She sights former 4-H member Sean Russell, who appeared as a kid on Nickelodeon for developing recycling tubes for Florida fisherman to drop monofilament line into so it wouldn’t wind up in the water, tangling around gills and fins. Today, Russell is the founder and operator of a world-wide, non-profit organization teaching youth how to engage and be active in their communities and environments. 

In its partnership with Farm Bureau, 4-H seeks to ignite youths to embrace ag, cultivate innovation, and empower them with opportunities to improve the world around them like Russell. These young people often grow up to become Farm Bureau members at the county level and develop their own stories to share.

            Other 4-H alumni from Nistler’s past are thriving, too. In Florida, former 4-H’er Jennifer Sullivan-Teubl serves as a State Representative after first being elected in 2014 at age 23 while still living at home with her parents. Attorney Mary Thomas-Hart, who grew up on a family farm in North Florida, serves as Chief Counsel for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Washington D.C.

            Arkansas boasts 11,136 4-H members with 660 clubs and a presence in every county. It provided 14,956 educational opportunities in 2022. 

            Nistler says she brought home a 4-H recruitment flyer as a fourth-grader from Yamhill (Ore.) Elementary and was hooked after just a few meetings. She showed sheep and cattle, participated in club and county leadership, and her three children would follow in her 4-H footsteps. 

            “The best part,” Nistler says, “is getting to have a caring adult in your life who is not a parent or teacher. They created that ‘spark’ in me.”