WORTHINGTON - On Friday, nearly 200 Minnesota West Community and Technical College students will turn their tassels over to the next chapter of their lives.

More than 700 students campus-wide will become Bluejay alumni, including more than 180 from the Worthington campus. Graduation ceremonies begin at 7 p.m. Friday at the Worthington campus’ Center for Health and Wellness.  

Among the list of graduates are 11 students who have taken advantage of the college’s Community Health Worker certification program - an emerging occupation that’s expected to outpace the average growth rate for all occupations between 2016 and 2026.

The interest in the program has grown since the college first began offering it online last year, which saw six students graduate.

Whether called an outreach worker, care guide, community health advisor, peer educator, promotora, community health representative or community health worker, the task of eliminating barriers and helping communities navigate the health and social service systems is synonymous.

“Once those barriers are fixed, health can happen,” said instructor Terri Janssen, who’s also a registered nurse with Southern Prairie Community Care. “(Community health workers) can help people navigate various things in a way they understand.”

This year’s class included students from many southern Minnesota locations. Janssen said most of the group’s diverse students are bilingual, although that’s not a requirement to be a community health worker.  

She said it’s not uncommon for community health workers to be mistaken as translators. While a community health worker may provide translation assistance, their specialized training allows them to go a step further and explain information to a client when a gap in understanding is realized.

Roxanne Hayenga, who advises the program on the college’s end, said the college views the certification program as having one of two objectives.

“It's a way to get into the healthcare system if you don’t like blood,” Hayenga said. “Or maybe it’s a stepping stone - a ladder into to those health care fields.”

According to Janssen, case studies have suggested that community health workers help health care systems save money.

That includes studies conducted on the effect of community health workers in Nobles County as part of a former grant. Those studies provide examples of real client scenarios in which a community health worker assisted. The effect was thousands of dollars in cost savings to the county.

“The reason … is because (community health workers) understand the traditions, values and cultures of people they’re working with,” Janssen said, adding that agencies have the potential to get the most bang for their buck by integrating CHWs into a multidisciplinary team. “Community health partners can help (clients) navigate various things in a way they understand.”

While Janssen and Hayenga are convinced of the benefits CHW provide to a community or agency, Hayenga noted that there are barriers that exist for the emerging profession. That includes getting employers and agencies to understand the specialized work they do.

While an effort is underway to make CHWs more well-known, some area agencies see the benefits and provide internship or scholarship opportunities. Some even fund current employees through the program, Hayenga added.

Given the area’s diverse and aging population, Janssen and Hayenga agreed: the opportunity for future expansion of the profession and skills is present in the area.