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Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Director Katie Heronimus poses in the radiology lab at the Minnesota West Learning Center in Luverne.

Heronimus in charge at MW Learning Center

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LUVERNE -- If there was one thing Katie Heronimus knew while growing up in a home where both of her parents were teachers, and several extended family members were as well, it was that she wouldn't follow in their footsteps.

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She laughs about it now and rolls her eyes. After all, she's surrounded by classrooms, teachers and learning as director of the Minnesota West Learning Center in Luverne.

A native of Welcome, Heronimus graduated from Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D., with a double major in biology and secondary education. She also played on the college's volleyball team.

After student teaching in Yankton High School, Heronimus was ready for the exciting world of education. Her first job was in Adrian -- secured before she graduated from college -- to teach high school science and fill the role of head volleyball coach starting in the fall of 2007.

"I (taught) freshman physical science, sophomore biology and junior- and senior-level environmental science," she said.

The atmosphere was quite different from her student-teaching experience in Yankton, which boasted 2,200 students in grades 9-12, but connecting with students about science remained the same.

"I loved working with students and the education setting," she said. "Science was always a big thing for me -- getting people to share that same interest in it."

Higher education

After teaching three years in Adrian, Heronimus was hired as the director at the West Learning Center in Luverne. She will complete her second year there this summer.

"I always knew that my goal was higher education," she said. "I wanted to be involved in the post-secondary world."

While the new role has taken her out of the classroom -- she did teach one freshman seminar class last fall -- Heronimus said her experience teaching in Adrian helped prepare her for the advancement.

"(It) gave me a good perspective of where students are coming from," she said. "It's definitely a very different set of dynamics."

As the only full-time staff member on the Luverne campus, Heronimus described her office as a catch-all, do-all. She works with prospective students on their application process and financial aid forms, counsels students on loans and then advises them once they begin their classes, assisting with everything from enrollment to dropping classes and finding help for students who need it.

She is also responsible for scheduling and budgeting, making sure there are enough classrooms -- and big enough classrooms -- to handle enrollment.

"I also travel to high schools and college fairs that I'm assigned to for recruiting," Heronimus said.

"Being a high school science teacher, I did not have much experience in that realm of things, but I am quickly learning," she added with a laugh.

Preparing students

for careers

In the five years since the Minnesota West Learning Center opened in Luverne, student enrollment has surged from 40 to approximately 160 today, including part-time, full-time, online and Post-Secondary Education Option (PSEO) enrollees. Nearly three-fourths of the students are considered full-time equivalent.

The center offers a full liberal arts degree, thanks to ITV and online courses. It specializes, however, in allied health programs, including surgical technology, radiological technology, medical lab technology, medical assisting, massage therapy and phlebotomy.

"We've been increasing students here ever since we opened, and we really foresee that to continue happening," Heronimus said. "We kind of hit a high-need niche in terms of the job market."

A majority of the students who attend the center are non-traditional or second- career students, who commute from communities throughout the tri-state area. The longest commutes are made by students living in Fairmont and St. James, although Heronimus said she is starting to see more interest from people living in northwest Iowa and eastern South Dakota.

"They can get a great education in a career that's going to put them in a job market right away," Heronimus said.

The shortest degree program is massage therapy, which has students taking a full courseload for two semesters. On the other hand, the radiology program is the most intense, requiring students to take class in the spring, fall and summer for two consecutive years.

"We're seeing more and more that students are taking a three-year track with the radiology program," Heronimus said.

The success of programming at Minnesota West Learning Center is measured by student passing rates on their board examinations, as well as job placement after graduation.

"The radiology program has had a 100 percent pass rate on their board examinations," she said. "Minnesota West has a reputation for turning out good, prepared, knowledgeable students. Most have job offers or a bug about a job offer before they're done with the program."

The fact that many of the students are older than Heronimus was something to get used to for this former high school science teacher, but she enjoys the new setting.

"It makes for some fun dynamics. I'm proud of them. They're taking this risk in going back to school, and they're enjoying their time there.

"It took me a while to get used to how positive this environment is -- they're excited to be here," she added.

Expansion plans

The location of the Luverne campus -- in the community's former hospital -- is ideal for teaching medical programs.

"The area we occupy contains the rooms specific to our courses," she said. "We have two surgical suites, and we maintain the radiology department. We've also maintained the laboratory setting for the medical lab technician program and other science classes that take place."

Former patient rooms are used in teaching as well, with students learning how to practice the skills they are learning.

With continued growth of the center comes the need for more space, and a remodeling project is well under way to meet the demand. The former hospital offers plenty of room for growth, and Heronimus said when the expansion is complete, the center will occupy approximately two-thirds of the former facility. Luverne city offices are also housed in the building.

"One of the largest needs we had was larger classroom space," Heronimus said. "We will be able to offer some of our bigger classes a little more comfortably."

Additional office space will be created as well as another exam room and a third ITV classroom.

A new entrance will be constructed on the north side of the building to create a more welcoming environment, and a lobby will provide students with a relaxed setting for studying.

The work began in October and is expected to be completed by the end of April.

Establishing roots

Heronimus and her husband, Tannar, reside in Adrian, and Tannar farms outside of town. She loves the rural lifestyle, and laughs now about the dreams she once had to be a "big city girl."

"When I came back (to southwest Minnesota), I told myself it was only going to be for a year," she recalled. "I wanted to move on."

Still, after attending college in a smaller town and then teaching in Adrian, she realized the rural lifestyle was something she wanted.

"It's the quality of people that are here and the connections that you make -- the ideals," she said. "I think that's appealing, the values they have, the work ethic of the students. If we were to ever have a family, those are the ideals and work ethics I would expect of my own family."

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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