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College and Community: A win-win relationship

Two staff from Alexandria Technical and Community College and a student in the Machine Tool program hold one of the "Welcome Back ATCC Students" signs that can be seen around town. (Contributed)1 / 4
An ATCC nursing student practices her skills on a dummy as an instructor observes. (Contributed)2 / 4
A student in the Mechatronics program performs a test on a circuitry panel. (Contributed)3 / 4
Two ATCC welding students receive guidance from an instructor. (Contributed)4 / 4

Any talk of that old adage about “town and gown” – when walls of social separation and professional tensions exist between a college and the town in which it resides – will fall on deaf ears when you speak with most people in the Alexandria area. In fact, many speak with tremendous pride about the relationship that exists between the Alexandria Technical and Community College and the city of Alexandria.

“There is just such a synergy in this area between the community and the college that has been so impressive to me,” said Tara Bitzan, executive director of the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. “The college is at the table for the majority of the community discussions going on. Any time there is a challenge in the community they are one of the key players stepping up to help find solutions.”

She cited recent discussions on workforce shortages throughout the region and how ATCC was at the forefront of those discussions asking what it could do, whether it be adding classes or adapting existing programs. Bitzan said the college works closely with the manufacturing sector and other employers in the area to ensure that students are receiving the latest knowledge and skills that will prepare them to be well-trained and productive members of the workforce and get those jobs filled.

“The biggest misunderstanding about two-year colleges that people often have is that it is gloss-over education,” said Rebekah Summer, director of institutional research and communications for ATCC. “But they don’t realize that this is two years of intensive skill-building and training for very specific, and often highly technical, jobs.”

Mechatronics, for example, is a highly skilled program offered at the college that impacts manufacturers like 3M, Summer said. It combines elements of mechanical, electronic and computer engineering in order to increase efficiency in the production of manufactured products.  

“Machine tool technology and welding are huge,” said Summer. “Welding has industry certifications designed to guarantee that student knowledge meets industry needs and expectations. They have day-and-night sessions because it is that popular. There are not too many communities where you cannot find a job in welding.”

Summer explained that the faculty at ATCC work very hard to develop strong relationships with local business and industry. She cited Kevin Huwe from Machine Tool Technology and Randy Goeke from Diesel Mechanics as just two examples of instructors who spend personal time making connections outside the college.

“Kevin goes into local industries and gets feedback regularly on the skills needed and equipment students should be trained on,” Summer said. “Randy partners with Caterpillar to meet their needs.”

These connections are made through phone calls and meeting with people across their industries. “It’s a lot of footwork and a lot of time,” she said. “They know that if it strengthens their program it is a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Every program at the college has an advisory committee made up of local professionals, industry experts and past ATCC graduates. These committees review the programs in detail and assess the curriculum to determine whether it is meeting the needs of the industry.

“The committees are very active,” Summer said. “The members take time out of their workdays to evaluate our programs and provide critical feedback. We are listening to industry and we are responding.”

“It is a very symbiotic relationship,” said Eddie Reif, communications director for Alomere Health. He cited the partnering relationship the county-owned hospital has with ATCC in training and recruiting health care workers, noting in particular the nursing program. “Nursing students get to do their clinicals right here at Alomere.”

“We love having the students here,” Reif said. “Students get a chance to learn what it is like to work in a hospital setting, but they also get a chance to experience the community itself in a different way, which helps them decide whether or not they would like to stay here.”

Many of Alomere’s security staff are ATCC law enforcement students or graduates, he said.

“We make each other better,” said Summer. “Collaborative partnership is the cornerstone of this institution. It is what has made us successful and it is a cornerstone of this community.”

ATCC was recently ranked as the fourth-best community college in the nation, according to a recent study published by WalletHub.com, and No. 1 among community colleges in Minnesota. And with good reason, according to Summer. ATCC has the highest graduation rate of all Minnesota public two-year colleges and a job placement rate for graduates at about 98 percent, she said.  

“People pass by other institutions to come here for their degree,” she said. “But part of our success comes from the community itself.”

According to Summer, many of ATCC’s students already had connections to the area. They are familiar with Alexandria because they have relatives or friends who vacation here or they lived here for a summer and know it is a fun place to be.

“This town is also rich in amenities. We’re in the heart of the lakes area, in a thriving community,” she said, offering as examples a ski slope, the trails, live theater, a nine-screen movie theatre and a variety of stores. “These and other amenities are things you would expect to find in a larger metro area.”

Summer pointed out that Alexandria is a safe and welcoming community that is centrally located in the state, where it is easy to get to from all directions and easy to go back on the weekends. But she also emphasized the city has a strong economic base with diverse industries where graduates can find employment.

“These are all a huge strength for us, not only to attract students to come to the school, but also for those student to stay here,” she said. “It is a community that provides a future.”

Alexandria Technical and Community College was established in 1961, and Summer said it has has grown and changed as much as the city has.

“We have grown with each other and changed with each other,” she said. “The two are so intertwined and the benefits we experience from one another are mutually enriching.”

“Our community has had such good relations with the college for so long that we sometimes take it for granted,” said Bitzan. “In talking with other chambers in other communities I have found that such a strong and healthy relationship is rare.”