When Oklahoma Panhandle State University student Carlos Flores isn’t running track, presiding over the student government as vice president or juggling a full course load, he’s on the road, driving 30 miles from campus to the headquarters of Tri-County Electric Cooperative.

It's a big commitment, but the busy 20-year-old sees serving as one of four collegiate delegates alongside the board of trustees at Hooker-based TCEC as time well spent. As a double major in business management and business finance, Flores said he gains valuable exposure to the co-op business model.

“I don’t look at it as a stipend or scholarship,” said Flores, who’s interested in a human resources career and served as a delegate last year as well. “I’ve gained a lot of knowledge on how different elements of a business come together to move the co-op forward while taking into account the different perspectives that directors bring to the table.”

By giving talented students a “behind the curtain” look at how co-ops work, TCEC is hoping to foster connections to a new generation of members through the Board Advisory Collegiate Delegate Program.

“The program allows us to show the value of the unique cooperative business model to potential future board members,” said TCEC CEO Zac Perkins. “In return, our board and leadership team hear from a different group of members than we traditionally hear from.”

The co-op made stronger engagement with young members a goal in its two-year strategic plan after the 2020 National Survey on the Cooperative Difference results showed low satisfaction among younger TCEC members.

“We took a different approach from other co-ops with high school programs,” said JuliAnn Graham, the co-op’s communications manager. “And because we have a relationship with OPSU, we decided to work with them.”

Delegates attend monthly board meetings for an entire academic year as well as the annual meeting in September and earn a stipend, reimbursement for mileage and, upon completion, a scholarship for one semester.

Students apply online, and TCEC’s executive team typically selects three candidates based on academic achievement and volunteerism. This year’s program has four delegates because the co-op asked Flores to return.

“Preference is given to those with ties to the local community,” said Graham. “We want people who are future potential members.”

Since the program began, organizers have tweaked a few logistics. To boost outreach, TCEC pays the college to promote the program on social media channels. It also moved the application process from summer to January, when students are making plans for the upcoming year.

During the April capstone project, students make formal presentations to directors and senior leaders. Some of their ideas have been put into practice, including the creation of materials for Spanish-speaking members.

Among Flores’ recommendations: a “job shadow” day for delegates, a chance to attend district board meetings and a cheat sheet for industry acronyms for the next group of delegates.

“I learned that this business has a lot of acronyms,” he said. “It took me quite a while to learn what ERCOT meant or even NRECA.”