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Project Seniors: Soon to be Southland grads taking to Zoom to get senior projects done

Since Gov. Tim Walz closed schools across the state because of COVID-19, districts have scrambled to institute distance learning policies to continue to meet education requirements for their students.

The Southland School District is no different. Among efforts to satisfy distance learning requirements, the district has also needed to find a way to wrap up the school’s senior projects.

This long term course, which starts in the student’s junior year, is designed in much the same way as Austin’s CEO Program which is to get students ready for their paths ahead after school.

By the time these projects come to a close, students will have completed a project they alone have come up with, as well as learn life skills including resume and cover letter writing and managing resources like time and money.

It’s not an easy project and it’s not supposed to be, but this year those projects were made more difficult by the distance learning itself.

“It’s a big growth for a lot of them, especially this year with distance learning,” said English and Senior Seminar teacher Jessica Fraser. “They learn how to Zoom. Their portfolios used to be documents. This time it’s digital. They’ve really taken on a lot.”

At the end of junior year, Fraser, along with fellow Senior Seminar and science teacher Paula Mortenson, will meet with the students to get them on the path for their senior year. At that time the students pick a project with a target to get it done by the end of summer and that’s because when they get into their senior year they will be taking the Senior Seminar class itself, which teaches the skills mentioned above.

The teachers really want the students to really test their limits when it comes to choosing a subject.

“The main goal is it should be a stretch,” Fraser said. “Something they really want to do and maybe wouldn’t try without this little push, something they are really passionate about.”

Ashlynn Mandt chose to start a photography business, running with the idea that corresponds with a family passion. But it wasn’t just because there were photographers in her family.

“My whole family has been into photography; aunts and uncles as well,” she said. “I wanted to see if it was something I would do in the future.”

The skills learned through senior seminar taught her how to not only continue her love of photography, but how to manage the world around it.

“Just to stay on top of my work, stay focused and learn how to operate in the future,” Mandt said.

Carter Schmitz chose for his project to refurbish a jet ski that came from a family friend.

Schmitz said he enjoyed the class for what it taught.

“I really liked it. I like what it teaches you,” he said. “I like the life skills the whole class teaches you. I think it leaves me a couple steps ahead of other kids from different schools.”

One of the things that students were required to do was find a mentor related to the area of their project. Schmitz worked with Neil Goergen in Adams and that opportunity to work with him taught Schmitz valuable tools.

“I learned a lot about figuring out solutions for problems,” he said. “Not every problem is the same. It’s figuring out the solution.”

Not only did the class teach the skills, it required students to take the next step in funding these projects.

Madeline Merten followed her passion for the environment and in doing so organized a project that brought 38 recycling bins to Southland. That wouldn’t have been possible had she not received grants for the project or known where to start.

“Applying for grants, that’s not a step I had taken before,” Merten said. “As well as the planning part of it; I didn’t know where to start.”

In a lot of ways, the entire process and the class itself taught Merten more about herself.

“I think I learned a lot,” she said. “I got a lot more confidence doing this project, not limiting what I can handle. It improved my people skills, so it was a good learning experience.”

A deeper experience felt by some of the students was simply being able to do something good for the community around them.

Jordan Nielsen pursued a fund raising drive that packaged food for South Sudan through Real Hope for the Hungry. Overall, he raised $2,440 and ended up packaging 14,472 meals for seven different feeding centers in South Sudan.

“I wanted to do something that would help others out,” Nielsen said. “We have a lot of refugees in our community and it was a good way to help people out.”

Like the other students, Nielsen took a lot from the class that will lend itself toward the future.

“I learned a lot of things,” he said. “How to write a resume and cover letter, write a professional paper and manage money and time and give speeches and formal presentations and interviews.”

To a student though, the idea of doing these projects through distance learning was a challenge, if not a weird experience in general.

“It’s been tough not being able to be at school,” Schmitz said. “For me especially, I’m not great at online learning. It’s hard not to have friends or teachers to ask questions. You have to figure out things on your own.”

To see the students overcome these challenges of learning while working in such a challenging class was inspirational for the teachers.

“It’s such a privilege and so exciting to come up with virtual Zoom meetings and follow through on this after all the hard work was done,” Mortenson said. “This is one thing these seniors could celebrate and I’m not going to lie, help them stay involved. I honestly feel that it’s a sense of pride that they’re getting the recognition for all the work they go through.”