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Starting Line: First group of Austin Assurance Scholarship recipients attend Riverland, boosting enrollment

School’s back in session for Riverland Community College students and for some, this means the start of a new chapter they never thought could be in the cards for them.

Last week marked the first time students who used The Hormel Foundation’s Austin Assurance Scholarship Program to help pay for their two-years of debt-free college attended classes. For some, this was the chance of a lifetime to have an opportunity to afford college and to go through doors that were previously closed to them.

“It’s both gratifying and satisfying to have this program benefit students and also benefit their families,” said Jeff Ettinger, president of The Hormel Foundation. “Our expectations are that enrollment numbers will continue to go up and we will continue outreach at Pacelli and Austin. We recognize that this is just the start.”

Ettinger said that in 2017, there were 74 Austin-based students who attended Riverland and the numbers grew in 2018 with 86 Austin-based students enrolling at the college. This year, with the inaugural year of the scholarship program, that number significantly increased, however; the exact dollar amount in scholarships given for this year has not been calculated yet.

About 110 Austin-based students from both Austin Public Schools and Pacelli Catholic Schools committed and enrolled at Riverland for fall semester, according to Amanda Matthews, director of advising at Riverland. There were 14 students who were academically qualified and were finishing up their volunteer hours by the deadline of Sept. 9.

Students who qualified for the scholarship and were part of the 2018 graduating class from Pacelli or AHS were grandfathered into the program, as well as students from the old Cycles for Success program.

The increase in the number of students attending Riverland was promising, Matthews said, and with the scholarship program also acting as a gateway for those who may not ordinarily have had the opportunity to attend school because of financial hurdles, the program is showing positive results.

A majority of the students who were part of the scholarship program were enrolled in liberal arts programs, and “quite a few number of students” were signed up for trade programs such as truck driving, information technology and carpentry. For the first time in seven years since Matthews started working at Riverland, she said that there were waitlists to get into some of the trade programs.

“This is definitely a game changer,” she said. “I think the stigma surrounding community college is going away, and that families, teachers and students can see that there’s not only one pathway to success and to getting a good career job.”

Several other factors could have contributed to enrollment. One could be the economy, Matthews noted, when the economy is good, then people have jobs and are out seeking a career. However, when the economy struggles, then colleges see increasing enrollment, when people are considering another career path.

Matthews also stated that sometimes, with the workforce shortages and firms desperately needing workers, they would hire students before completing their degree.

“On the one hand, it’s a good thing because students get a job and that’s what they want,” she said. “But, it’s not good for us when they don’t complete their program and don’t graduate.”

Or it could be based on the increase in the number of individuals taking a gap year before heading off to college. Whether that’d be working to help finance their schooling, or to travel and doing some volunteer opportunities, a gap year could also influence enrollment.

For Riverland being one of the few colleges in Minnesota that saw a boost in enrollment when others have seen a decline, the scholarship program may prove its significance in helping students achieve their pursuits. Thoughts of being able to afford college often plagued students and their families. Where some careers require degrees, and needing the financial backing to obtain the proper licensing and certification, sometimes, many dismiss the notion of being able to go to school to get

“I think this definitely contributed to the increase,” said Janelle Koepke, president of the Riverland Foundation. “It’s the first year of the program, and we’re really happy with the numbers and for younger students to come to college for years to come.”

The road ahead

It’s one thing to have students enroll in school, it’s another matter entirely to help them stay enrolled. Often times, students drop-out from college for financial and personal reasons. Yet, the transition period from high school to college often results in losing students, Matthews said.

“They don’t know how to do financial aid, and they get lost along the way,” she said. “We lose them a lot in transition once they’ve applied because they don’t have someone helping them through the process.”

Families new to the country may get frustrated during the process when there’s a language barrier that contains important information, and sometimes, that frustration may cause many to give up on the process of applying to attend school, which Matthews wants to simplify as much as possible.

“Students and staff are navigating different things like helping them with transcripts, waiving an application fee and trying to simplify that process and making sure financial aid is something they don’t get stuck on. It’s easier to walk away when you don’t have a parent’s information, and it can get overwhelming. Some people who have never worked with financial aid and need verification can get scared about whether they did something wrong.”

Drop-out rates can be attributed to many factors from the financial and the personal, Matthews said, but one of the ways to enforce retention of newly enrolled students is making sure that they have someone to help them with transitioning onto campus, as well as getting the word out about the scholarship program to younger students at IJ Holton Intermediate School and Ellis Middle School.

So that’s where Katelyn Flatness, academic advisor for The Hormel Foundation Austin Assurance Scholarship Program, came into the picture. She assists students in transitioning from high school and guiding them on campus. Through individualized student interactions, Flatness plays a key role in helping students succeed by working with them from their application process at the high school, to meeting with them frequently on campus at Riverland.

“I meet with students while they’re still in high school,” Flatness said. “I may be at Austin High School three times during the week or at Pacelli for two days. There, I work with students on the scholarship application process and making sure they’re on track for submitting their materials in on time.”

Aside from assisting students with the scholarship application, Flatness also keeps in communication with her students who are committed to attending Riverland. Once on campus, she would take them to retention events that helps them feel more comfortable being in a new environment like the student organization fair.

“Katelyn’s the coolest,” said Trace Fishbaugher, scholarship recipient and a Pacelli graduate. “She’s so easy going and is like the mom of the group. She’s so easy to talk with, even when I have a bad day, she’d be there. If we didn’t have an advisor, then I wouldn’t know how certain stuff works.”

Others also admitted that having an advisor to help them transition into college was vital to their success, as well as the ability to stay in for the long run.

“(Katelyn’s) very important to all of us,” said Abby Brinkman, AHS scholarship recipient. “She gets us our schedules to help us get to where we need to be for the first year. It helps me, and I’m so happy to be here.”

“I was afraid, but Katelyn helped,” added Daniela Hernandez, AHS scholarship recipient. “Katelyn’s important because we need someone to help us.”

‘I’m doing this for her’

A student’s journey is different from their peers, and the reasoning behind getting an education is also personal.

Knowing his mother dropped-out from Rochester Community and Technical College after getting pregnant with him, Fishbaugher felt compelled to obtain a degree in honor of her.

“She gave up her dreams for me,” the Pacelli graduate said. “My dad completed his degree, and she dropped out. I need to graduate college to show her I can do this, and that she didn’t give up her dreams for nothing. I know this isn’t on me, but I’ve been dreaming about going to college since I was 12 years old.”

Since the first day of college, Fishbaugher felt the whole experience was surreal. Never did he think he’d be walking to the campus bookstore to get his textbooks for classes, the excitement caused him to arrive an hour early before the store even opened.

Things were definitely different from his time at Pacelli, Fishbaugher noted. He graduated from a senior class of only 13 students and compared the size of his high school to the size of just Riverland’s library alone. Yet, he was excited to be there. This was his chance to get his general education courses out of the way, and then eventually transfer to a four-year university to obtain his sports medicine degree.

If Fishbaugher hadn’t transferred from Lyle to Pacelli his junior year of high school, then he would have missed the open door to an affordable college education. For the Pacelli alumnus, college was not in the cards for him. Or, at least he thought he would need to take an exorbitant amount of debt that would have overwhelmed him.

Family members from a far away from Austin have heard about the scholarship program, and asked him if he’d attend Riverland. That, was an easy answer.

“When a school offers you to go to school for free, you gotta take that,” Fishbaugher said. “It was a no-brainer. Really, who else is doing this for their hometown kids? I was ready to go to university and take out as many loans as I could and eventually pay them off. But, the fact there’s a scholarship program where I can actually go to college? I’m really, forever thankful.”

Abby Brinkman is an Austin graduated who is taking advantage of the Austin Assurance program.

‘I want to set an example’

Brinkman was prepared to go the traditional route of going to a four-year school and taking out massive amounts of student debt. Her family planned to pay for Brinkman’s college education, until Brinkman found out about the Austin Assurance Scholarship while attending AHS.

Her mother had attended Riverland as a student, and her grandfather was amazed by the scholarship program, leaving Brinkman with an easy choice in her post-secondary plans. She planned to pursue psychology and study human emotions, and eventually transfer to a four-year school to get her degree.

“I was personally set about going to the University of Minnesota Duluth, and this changed everything,” she said. “I’m so thankful to have this scholarship help me get a higher education without going into massive amounts of debt. I am grateful for the people who did this for us, and to have this opportunity. I want to set an example for younger students that going to college to get an education here in Austin is a great thing.”

Daniela Hernandez is the first in her family to go to college, thanks the Austin Assurance Program.
Hannah Yang/hannah.yang@austindailyherald.com

‘It’s important to my family’

Hernandez dreams of obtaining a college degree and entering into the career field of human services as a future social worker. Yet, high costs would have prevented Hernandez from realizing her goal.

The AHS alumna knows how much of an immense weight had been lifted once receiving the Austin Assurance Scholarship, and since then, has found joy in attending classes and being able to be near her family while enrolled at school for this semester.

“When my parents heard about the scholarship, they were immediately saying ‘you need to go there,’” Hernandez recalled. “It’s a free college. Sometimes, it’s hard for people to get to college. I can stay with my family, and save money on food and rent, and saving everything that would’ve gone to school payments.”

Achieving this milestone was an important one for Hernandez. She would be the first one in her family to attend college, and she wanted to make her family proud.

“I’m first generation,” she said. “I’m the first one to go to college. So, this is important to all of us.”