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Written by: Christopher Plein, Ph.D. West Virginia University & OneOp Military Caregiving concentration

Life is full of serendipity. In just a short time, diverse conversations, discussions, and experiences can converge to create moments of insight and clarity.  Over the past week or so I have had the great opportunity to learn more about the challenges and opportunities that we face in helping families be ready and resilient in the face of change and uncertainty.  Two events anchored this experience. The first was attending the 2019 Virtual Learning Conference offered online by the OneOp. The second was attending the annual conference for the West Virginia Extension Service.  Along the way, I was reminded once again how lessons learned in one setting can apply to another.  As I visualized the experience, my mind drew a map of paths of learning converging.

Both conferences were aimed at bringing together those who work with families and communities. They did so in different ways. The Virtual Conference provided a cutting edge 21stcentury approach to this objective. Participants joined online from their homes and offices from across vast distance, closing gaps and challenges posed by travel and time through virtual space. The annual Extension conference focused on bringing together participants in one physical place. It was held at one of the oldest statewide 4-H camps in the United States. Dating back to the early 20thcentury and known officially as Jackson’s Mill, the camp is affectionately referred to simply as “The Mill.”  It is relatively isolated, has limited cell-phone coverage, and its bucolic setting is perfect for long walks, conversation, and reflection.

Both conferences provided formal and set-piece presentations full of valuable content.  But in their own ways, they offered something just as important.  They encouraged peer-to-peer learning and joint discovery through informal interaction and dialogue.  At the Mill, beautiful late summer weather allowed for conversations on porches, under trees, and in sunlight filtered wood paneled rooms.  With the Virtual Conference, the light of computer screens and digital prompts invited dialogue and discussion through engagement in chat-boxes and a daily wrap-up question and answer session.

Unstructured and informal reflection and interaction allow us to make connections in our own unique and organic way. Because each of us moves across different communities of interest and different settings, we help to share ideas and draw inspiration in, and from, various contexts. At the Mill, much of our focus was on how to build connections within and across rural communities to address matters relating to education, health, family well-being, and community capacity. As I participated in these sessions, I thought of lessons learned from the Virtual Conference.  Many of these focused on building collaborations across organizational and disciplinary boundaries through networks and successfully sustaining these over time. I also thought about how we convey and visualize information, both through words and images.

Indeed, a Virtual Conference session on “Creating Visual Language” led me to the image of paths of learning converging.  Things come together when we reflect on experiences and then apply them to new circumstances. For example, one of the Virtual Conference’s session focused on “Holistic Financial Health for Human Services.” Considered in the context of military family readiness, we might consider the lessons offered in relationship to the challenges facing a family stretching to make ends meet in a new duty assignment.  But a few days later, as I listened to an Extension agent explain the financial stresses that many rural families face, I realized how closely related family situations can be. I immediately shared insights learned from the finance session. I explained to my colleagues how OneOp, while focused on the well-being of those in and around our defense system, is a valuable resource broadly applicable across the Extension community and beyond.

It goes without saying that the knowledge and experience of the Extension community contributes much to the content and approaches used in OneOp. Our work is deeply informed by over a century of knowledge generated and shared at places like “The Mill” and across our country.  Just as importantly, new knowledge gained through a virtual learning network, like the MFLN, provides new insights and resources for the Extension community. The paths of knowledge do indeed converge.