When the directors at Fulton County REMC decided to reach out to the young people, they decided that what they had in mind couldn’t be accomplished by sending out a cool, slick message on social media or offering a tour of the facilities.

Our directors had a bigger idea, explained Joe Koch, CEO. The leaders at the co-op had their minds on the future.

So, they opened the doors to the boardroom, welcoming three local high schoolers into its inner workings, privy to all the decision making and policy setting any co-op board does. Though expected and encouraged to speak up, the students don’t vote nor can they join in executive sessions.

A Pipeline to the Future

Koch said the reasoning behind the Fulton County REMC Student Director Project is to “build a pipeline to the future” by giving young participants an authentic experience about how electricity is delivered to their communities through decisions reached in a democratic, locally-owned, business model that emphasizes cooperation.

Developed and promoted by two board members who teach school during the day, the program offers a $1,500 scholarship for a year of service or $3,000 for two years. Details of the program are distributed among the eight area schools as well as homeschoolers. The co-op uses its own communication resources and Facebook to spread the word.

To apply, a student must be a child of a member of the co-op and fill out an application in which they describe their interests and reasons for seeking the position. Koch said they are told up front that they must attend a minimum of eight events as REMC representatives including the regular monthly and special board meetings. They also receive board packages and are expected to show up informed.

The application form uses plain language to tell prospective student directors that “reliable and cost-effective electricity” are the main goals and that board meetings feature discussion on budgets, outage reports, rate structures, new technologies and costs of service.

Honest and Direct Approach to Students

“We tell them that for their commitment, the opportunity to serve will open their eyes to the vast responsibilities and decisions made by the board that affect 5,000 families in our community,” Koch said.

That level of directness tends to winnow the candidates from the merely curious to the very serious. Three students were initially selected for the program, which is now completing its first year.

There hasn’t been a single downside, Koch said. At first, the students and the regular directors were shy, but as issues kept coming up on the meeting agenda, the reticence began to fade — especially when board members asked the students directly for their opinion.

“What we discovered is that the students could offer an insight that wasn’t plain to the board,” he said. In return, the students often expressed to him how impressed they were with the knowledge, professionalism and experience of the board. “We had to slow things down during the meetings to give more explanation to the students. I think the interaction caused everyone to go just a little deeper into the process.”

Turning Students from Observers to Participants

Adrianna Dague, 18, who has just completed her first year in the program, said at first it was intimidating. “I felt like a little girl in a meeting with people I didn’t know except that they were leaders or well respected in the community.”

It was the board members who went out of their way to welcome them, that made them turn from observers to participants.

“I never had really thought about what goes into a group making decisions that affect so many people. Everyone needs to participate for the decision to be effective. We had just never been exposed to that kind of stuff. You think something has always been that way and just kind of continues. It’s not that way at all. A lot of thinking goes into what might seem like a little thing.”

For example, this summer Dague played a part in a decision about a problem the REMC was experiencing over its annual meeting. Like many co-ops, attendance at the annual meeting has been dwindling. Fewer attendees means the co-op loses a chance at engagement and education of members.

Annual Meeting Concerns Becomes a Sweet Idea

And this year the board worried that many members would not show at all because they had lost their meeting space to a construction project at a local high school. Even worse, there would be no meal.

Dague suggested they turn the event an old-fashioned ice cream social utilizing the popular local Lions Club ice cream wagon that always draws a crowd at county fairs and other community happenings.

It was a good, practical idea, too; the REMC’s annual meeting was well-attended – despite no big sit-down, country-style dinner.

Koch said the board may not have come up with alternate approach if not for Dague’s quick and fresh thinking.

Dague, who just started her freshman year at Purdue University where she is majoring in agribusiness and management, said her experiences as a student board member would always connect her to the REMC.

“I think I could become an actual director in the future,” she said. After graduation, Dague wants to return to her family’s farm and dairy operation.

Even if she doesn’t pursue a role as a co-op director, she said that she has gained an important understanding of her community’s infrastructure, how it is delivered, and the costs of keeping it.

Experience was an Eye-opener

“I never really thought about electricity,” she said. “It was always there. Understanding what it takes to be always be there was an eye opener for me.”

She is reminded of the lesson when milking cows. All the machines for that task need electric power. It’s all part of a complex supply chain that connects her farm’s fields of grain into a glass of milk or dish of ice cream served at an REMC Annual Meeting.

The human supply chain to his co-op is why Koch considers the program an absolute winner, regardless of whether student directors seek leadership roles or use their experience to be knowledgeable supporters of the co-op as members.

“What we wanted was something very real,” he said, adding that goal was to use the connect the generations served by the co-op so the co-op would be able to serve the generations to come.