Seeking a way to "contribute positively" to his home state, ironically, it was his time overseas serving with the United States Marines that gave new Harvey County Extension Agent Aaron Swank some direction on how to do that professionally.
"Throughout my eight years in the Marine Corps, a lot of marines would come to me for nutritional advice, exercise advice and things like that, and I finally thought, close to the end of my career in the Marine Corps, 'well, why aren't I studying that,'" Swank said. "If I'm going to go just get a piece of paper to get a job, why not study something that I'm interested in?"
With that revelation, Swank was led to Kansas State University to pursue a dual degree in nutrition and kinesiology — which evolved into a masters degree in public health — before landing in Harvey County as the nutrition and family finance agent for the extension office, officially starting his new role this week.
Over his course of study at KSU and through student organizations he was a part of (along with his work as a CNA at Meadowlark Hills Retirement Community), Swank was drawn even more specifically to address diet and exercise needs within low-income populations.
Living situations in low-income populations was something he saw plenty of during his service. Swank recalled one particular stint in Peru driving through such communities and he was struck by the poor conditions the natives were living in — some residing in dilapidated buildings — yet they still found ways to be an active community and provide for each other amid the destitution, something Swank took to heart in how he aimed to provide for his community.
"I wanted to be a model of health as much as I can," Swank said. "I really wanted to say if I'm going to contribute to the community, I want to contribute to a healthy community."
No matter the living conditions, a healthy lifestyle and strong family environment are important and Swank feels he is well-suited to promote that because of his background and ability to engage people in what can be a tricky topic to discuss.
"There's a way to have certain conversations about nutrition, about physical activity. A lot of conversations, particularly about physical activity and nutrition, really come into play with body type and body image issues," Swank said. "My skill set is really being open to other people's experiences and separating my own from theirs, so I think that's a really important cognitive skill that I bring to the table."
Personal preferences also play a major role in how successful individuals can be maintaining a certain exercise regimen or diet, something Swank knows well, which is why he is willing to work in a variety of ways to assist the citizens of Harvey County in addressing nutrition and family finance.
Currently, Swank and the rest of the Harvey County Extension Office are busy with the free fair. While that supersedes some of Swank's normal duties for the time being, it will also give him plenty of opportunities to meet the citizens he will be serving and get some immediate feedback on how he can personalize some of the programs he will put on and information shared in the areas of nutrition and family finance.
"Education is really important, and that's what we are at our core as extension agents; we're educators for sure. It's not enough to just say, 'here's the information and here's how you can get it,' but I think it's really important as educators to teach people how; teach life skills and really important skills," Swank said. "Really, I think what a great idea for me is to just ask a question directly — how can I serve you? Because that's really what we're here for. We're here to serve the community in whatever capacity they need us to."
How Swank will serve the community will focus on healthy eating and physical activity, though he noted the financial side (i.e. family budgeting, paying off debt, etc.) will be covered through his office as well.
Getting started, the northeast Kansas native is excited about joining the extension office and practicing what he preached while at KSU — counseling other native Kansans he would meet who were disenfranchised with their home state to pitch in themselves to help create positive changes in the Kansas community.
Swank intends to do that at an individual level starting out and hopefully grow from there.
"My philosophy is if I can change one person or if I can assist one person in making either some lasting change or just to kind of rethink their situation, I think that my job has been done and it's been done well," Swank said.
A meet and greet introducing Swank as the newest extension agent will be held at 2 p.m. Aug. 5 at the 4-H building (800 W. First).