Illini ACT Chapter hosts National ACT Professional Development Conference
April 8, 2021

The Illini Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow (ACT) chapter at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was excited to host the 2021 Virtual National Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow Professional Development Conference March 18 and 19.

During the conference, students heard from industry professionals, networked with other students and communicators from across the country, and learned about the breadth of opportunities within the agricultural communications sector. Due to the current circumstances, the conference was held via a virtual format this year. A lot of hard work went into planning a conference of this size, which boasted over 75 registered participants from around the nation. Thanks to the planning committee in conjunction with the National Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow (ACT) officer team, in which two U of I students are officers, the event was a great success even in this virtual format.

This year's conference also helped celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National ACT organization. Attendees were provided a conference booklet, which included a letter from Dr. Jim Evans, professor emeritus in Agricultural Communications at Illinois, past National ACT coordinator, and pioneer in the agricultural communications sector. Unable to attend virtually, students were greeted warmly with a message from this prominent figure in the agricultural communications academic field.

The first day kicked off with a welcome message from College of ACES dean Dr. Kim Kidwell, and associate dean Dr. Anna Ball. Dean Kidwell noted, "You as a collective will set the tone of the voice of the future of agriculture." Participants also heard from the first of the keynote speakers, Doyle Karr of Corteva Agrisciences and Ag Communications alumnus, on the evolution of our food system, consumer perceptions of agriculture, and how students can prep for a future career in communications. The afternoon featured a lesson on how to write a fabulous feature story with Illinois Ag Communications alumnus, Holly Spangler, and a lesson on video editing tips and tricks with current ALEC student, Rachel McGreal. The conference content concluded with a professional Q&A panel with noted University of Illinois alumni, Holly Spangler of Prairie Farmer Magazine; Russ Walker from John Deere; Lyle Orwig of Charleston-Orwig Agency; and Tami Craig Schilling of Bayer.  The National ACT officers also hosted a networking opportunity, followed by the National ACT annual business meeting.

Day two began on a high note with second keynote speaker, Dr. Karen Freberg, a well-known researcher in the field of social media and marketing from the University of Louisville. Freberg shared 10 marketable skills to have in 2021 and how to build your repertoire to succeed in any communications role. "It's not all about what you know; it's who knows you and what you're known for," Freberg offered as a critical piece of advice for attendees. A young Illinois alumni panel, featuring former Agricultural Communications students Christy Allen (Pioneer Seed), Xavier Morgan (Hormel), Jessica Watson (KSN-TV), and Jesse Campbell (Agri-Pulse) followed the keynote. Students could then attend lightning sessions, which featured topics on podcasting, branding yourself for your career goals, and graphic design tips and tricks. The day concluded with the announcement of the winners of the photo contest, taking place throughout the conference, which was judged by Illinois alumna and prominent local photographer, Holly Birch Smith.

Attendees were indeed given an excellent opportunity to learn about the breadth of possibilities in agricultural communications from some of the top professionals in the industry.  The club members were honored to have the opportunity to host this national event during the 50th anniversary of the organization, and to bring people together even during challenging times. Conference speaker Tami Craig-Schilling, said to attendees, "Enjoy the journey. You're in a great major within a great industry, and the world is yours."

Madison Wilson is a senior in the Agricultural Communications-Advertising concentration in ALEC.