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The Last Word: Meet Jorge Atiles

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Dean Jorge Atiles celebrated his two-year anniversary with WVU Extension this summer. Over the last few years, he has spent a lot of time listening and learning. Although he has worked with Cooperative Extension programs for 23 years (he previously served as a state housing specialist and program leader and associate dean for Extension at both Oklahoma State University and the University of Georgia), he quickly realized that a vast number of programs and West Virginia’s geographic terrain make WVU Extension’s opportunities and challenges unique.

You were raised in the Dominican Republic. How is that area similar to West Virginia?

 

The people of West Virginia are warm, friendly and proud, very much like Dominicans. Both places have an abundance of opportunity with beautiful resources and landscapes and people who work hard. They also have similar challenges such as terrain, infrastructure, digital access and healthcare.

 

You are very passionate about the work of WVU Extension. Why is it so important?

 

WVU Extension has such a critical role to play in our communities. With information gathered from our recent research and insights from stakeholders, we have a roadmap that will allow us to deliver the knowledge, educational programs and research from our land-grant university that our people and communities need to thrive. I want these valuable and transformational programs to be used by all West Virginians.

 

If you like to garden, we have experts for that. If you have a child who is interested in hands-on STEM activities, our agents and specialists bring those programs into classrooms and camps around the state. Our health experts are providing critical education on issues like diabetes and giving people tools they can immediately use at home.

 

We meet people where they are. We provide knowledge and research that is helpful and we do that through people who live and work in these communities. People know and trust us because of that, so we play a huge role.

 

For most of your tenure, you’ve been leading in a COVID world. What is the most important lesson learned?

 

I started this job in 2020, during the onset of COVID. We quickly learned that we can also deliver courses, trainings and other programs virtually. WVU Extension offered virtual courses before, to some degree, but the pandemic really forced us to look at how we would still be able to teach, connect and engage our audiences through virtual avenues. One-on-one connections remain vital to our work – our communities need those personal connections – but the pandemic helped us become nimbler and adapt how we make our programs available. Meeting people where they are allows us to extend the reach of Extension and opens the door for more opportunities to connect.

 

You talk a lot about transformation, community engagement and innovation when discussing the role of WVU Extension. Why is this important in the context of WVU’s land-grant mission?

 

WVU Extension provides programming that touches every sector of West Virginia’s economy – tourism, fire safety, childcare, health and wellness, youth programming, agriculture and so much more. We do this as the only WVU unit embedded in all 55 West Virginia counties.

 

We bring the University’s innovative research, tools and other resources to our communities to help people solve problems, engage youth and hopefully provide expertise to transform lives.

We are fortunate to have faculty and staff who are invested; they know their neighbors, community leaders, educators and others, so they provide tremendous insights and perspectives. Our faculty and staff help us learn and adapt and see what we can do differently to address an issue or implement a new program.

 

Because they are embedded in our counties, they carry a true passion for wanting to strengthen our communities. They believe in the land-grant mission.

 

What do you see for the future of WVU Extension?

 

First, we want to continue to develop strong partnerships that align with statewide programs that West Virginians need. From our conversations with community leaders, our needs-assessment survey and other interactions, we have already taken that first step in gaining a better understanding of what our communities need.

 

We also need to fine-tune our delivery of these programs – how do we get these great resources to West Virginians? What kinds of outcomes are we seeing? Outcomes are really important to me and to the work we do. We need to know that what we are doing is working so that we can devote the appropriate resources to expand those efforts.

 

At the end of the day I want to ensure that all West Virginians – of all backgrounds, ages and interests – have an opportunity to be a part of an Extension program that helps improve their lives and livelihoods. Innovation and creativity will drive our ability to do that. If we can achieve this goal, we have truly met the mission of a land-grant university.