Column: 'You will never be alone on that journey'

'This is what I know: Minnesota West helped me to learn with purpose.'

Nicole Zempel

As both an alumnus and employee of Minnesota West Community and Technical College, there is so much I would love to share. While pondering, the old adage "write what you know" kept popping into my mind.

What I know began with my own experience at Minnesota West Community & Technical College.

After graduating high school, I did what we were all told to do, "Go to college." Back in the '90s, students didn't seem to receive much direction beyond that. There were not the unique career exploration opportunities that exist today.

After my first year of post-secondary, not really sure what I was interested in, I made the decision not to return the following year. My plan was to work until I had some idea of what I wanted to pursue. I planned to return once I figured that out.

Fast forward several years. I was working a full-time and part-time job while raising my son. Additionally, I was keeping pace with his busy schedule and also a volunteer at his school and within the community.


During this time, I realized the value of finishing what I had started years prior. My son was in sixth grade when I made the decision to go back to school. It wasn't a scary or hard choice for me because I'd not only come to understand the benefits of post-secondary education — I also wanted my son to gain an early appreciation for its importance.

So, one day I walked into the Granite Falls campus of Minnesota West and asked to meet with an advisor. That gem was Laurel Christianson, whom I now get to call my co-worker.

Laurel worked with me, as she does all students, very closely and helped me through the process of getting started and registered. Throughout the time it took to finish my associate of arts degree (generals designed for transfer to a four-year institution), she was always there to help guide and answer questions.

And there is always that certain teacher that stands out and offers some sort of powerful experience. We all can think of at least one, right? For me, that was my math instructor, Dr. Shannon Fiene.

I was severely math-phobic, as so many people are, and had been worried about math becoming a barrier for me. Let me just say this, as someone who loves writing and literature, I never would've imagined my favorite classes would involve formulas.

Her classes became more than just math classes to me. I learned that I wasn't only capable, but that I could excel. I realized I could achieve what I didn’t think I could. I remain grateful for that experience, and it’s one I have carried forward all these years.

Long before becoming an employee of Minnesota West, people would ask me about my experience. I would rave about my fantastic advisor, the faculty and how I felt the institution was one of opportunity for anyone to finish or further their education.

Fast forward again: I heard that Minnesota West was hiring an enrollment specialist. I didn't know what that was, but came to discover it was the recruiting arm of marketing.


To me that meant I would get to do what I had already done many times, which was to talk about my own experience there.

As I began feeling my way around the job, I discovered I really enjoyed speaking to prospective students of all ages about the opportunities that await them. Not only could I relate to the uncertainty of the high school student or the varying circumstances of the nontraditional student — it is something I personally am passionate about.

I get to speak with students, parents and caregivers, people looking to change careers or to finish up something they started years prior (kinda like me).

I get to create partnerships with high schools in an effort to provide fun, unique and hands-on experiences while exploring careers in the tech and trades, or sharing the many benefits of starting at a two-year institution and transferring to a four-year institution.

I get to share information and help offer experiences that I never experienced that may have helped me discover a certain career interest I didn't even realize I had.

This is what I know: Minnesota West helped me to learn with purpose. As an alumnus, I’ve gained opportunities that I would not have otherwise had. And, as an employee, it has given me a great platform with which to help others reach their goals.

And here's what else I know: My experience did set a positive example for my son. He is a recent graduate of Minnesota West and this August will make the move to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado.

I will share here what I share with prospective students, things I’ve learned that I wish someone has told me.


Do not let financials become a barrier to reaching your goals. Not only is Minnesota West affordable, there are scholarships and other forms of financial assistance available.

Keep pursuing your education. Even if you’re not completely sure what you want to do, you will figure it out. Whether that means starting with your generals or exploring a program in the tech and trades, Minnesota West is a great place to discover your passion and your path.

And it’s a place where you will never be alone on that journey.

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