Occupational Skills students adjust to life at Ridgewater College

WILLMAR -- A couple months into their first year of college, a few things are clear to this group of students. "The food is better," one said. "You can wear hats," said another. The serious answers are in there, too. "I like the classes," said Ju...

Occupational Skills Program
First-semester Ridgewater College Occupational Skills Program students Adam Jorgensen, of Tyler, seated on table, Ashley Dammann, of Glencoe, and Damien Klemz, of Clearwater, take questions from the tour groups in the OSP classroom. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR - A couple months into their first year of college, a few things are clear to this group of students.
“The food is better,” one said. “You can wear hats,” said another.
The serious answers are in there, too. “I like the classes,” said Juan Prieto of Fairfax. “You get more benefit from the classes. ... (College) gives you things you can learn for the future.”
Some of them were nervous about leaving home to go to college, and it was hard at first, they admitted. “Moving away from family” was the hard part for Mary Mugg, of Melrose. Meeting people and finding his classes were concerns for Kyle Wrobleski, of Benson.
Ten students at Ridgewater College’s Willmar campus are enrolled in this year’s Occupational Skills Program. The program offers a transitional education year for students with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities before they go on to work or to further schooling.
The program helps them learn how to deal with real-life situations such as getting along with coworkers and bosses; communications skills; interviewing; budgeting and consumer skills; and personal safety.
“A lot of students can get a job, there’s lots of jobs out there, but we try to teach them how to keep a job,” said teacher Mary Benson.
Students in the program are full-fledged college students.
They live on their own, apply for financial aid, and pay tuition and fees like all other students. Several in this year’s class have work-study jobs in addition to the internships that are part of their class.
Like other students at the college, they are encouraged to join clubs and participate in activities. Occupational Skills, like other technical education programs, has its own club. Many students have joined at least one other organization.
“Anything that anybody else does out here, they do,” Benson said. The OSP Club has already made a team-building trip to Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.
McKensie Petersen of Tyler is playing for the college’s basketball team this year. She has played since elementary school, and “the coach talked me into it,” she said.
Many of the classes the students take are in the occupational skills area, but all students take two classes that are part of the college’s broader course offerings - Human Relations and First Aid and Safety.
Ridgewater’s program is one of two in the state’s public college system. The other is at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. Several private colleges have similar programs, but the cost is much higher, Benson said.
“The mission of the program is to go on and find jobs, competitive jobs in the community,” Benson said.
Some students arrive with no idea of what type of work they would like to do. Others have clear ideas of what they want but don’t know the steps needed to get there. The class helps them explore their interests and develop plans.
Half of their school time is spent at an internship, about three hours each morning at a local business. They have classes from noon on.
“The employers in the Willmar area have been very supportive of the program,” said Tim Laffen, who oversees the job training aspect of the program. Some interns are eventually hired by employers who have been pleased with their work.
The program instructors said IQ is not an indicator of whether a person will be successful in the program, because it doesn’t take into account intangibles such as work ethics and perseverance.
Often, with the training received in the Occupational Skills Program, students go on to another technical program at Ridgewater or another college. Others will enroll in college with an eye toward a two-year or four-year degree. Former students are now dental assistants, cosmetologists, certified nursing assistants, nurses and auto techs.
Willmar’s program has been in existence for 25 years, and Laffen has worked with the program since it started. He has a degree in agricultural business administration and had been working with people starting their own businesses. When the program opened, he applied for the job and was hired because he knew a variety of employers in the area.
“I could retire, but why,” Laffen said with a smile. “I really like what I do.”
With new students every year, his work is constantly changing, he said. “Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you see something else.”
There’s a lot of flexibility in the internships, Laffen said. They have one student this year who has said she might like to try a different type of work next semester, and they will be able to work that out.
Former students tend to stay in touch. One young woman stopped by the program office last week to tell her former teachers about her perfect score on a reading test and the papers she got an A and a B on.
Benson said she recently heard from a former student whose employer had promoted him to full-time hours with benefits.
The program recently held an open house for prospective students and their parents. Another will be held in the spring.
The Occupational Skills club will work at Pizza Ranch Nov. 9. The fundraiser will help pay for club activities.

Lindsey Harms
Lindsey Harms, a senior at Willmar High School, attended the informational meeting with four classmates and teacher Brenda Jergenson. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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