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Dislocated Worker on Road to New Career

M State Student Finds Help through M State and Rural MN CEP

Declining economic conditions typically change the face of student populations on college campuses as individuals who become unemployed after years in the workforce turn to community and technical colleges to update their skills and retrain. Tom Wegner is one of many new faces on campus, where state and federal funding programs are making it possible for him to prepare for a new career in nursing.

Tom Wegner joined the student body at Minnesota State Community and Technical College in Fergus Falls last fall. He is often mistaken as an instructor by fellow students until they get to know him. At 50-plus years of age, he brings a great deal of life experience to campus.

Tom was coordinating international shipping for a manufacturer in Shakopee when competition from overseas manufacturing led to the elimination of his warehouse job. He began looking outside the Twin Cities for career options and, since his parents had retired and moved to the lake country near Vining, it made sense for Tom to be near them. Tom relocated and found employment in Wadena.

He became a dislocated worker last summer when he lost his full-time job there. Now he's completed one year of college and is in the middle of his coursework in the Generic Registered Nursing (RN) program. Funding through Rural Minnesota CEP, a federal Pell grant and work study are helping Tom pursue a new career.

Tom says he forgot most of the math he learned in high school, and math was still a challenge when he began at M State. But with help from M State math instructor Sharon Hintgen, Tom broke through the barrier, and his math skills have improved to a level that may make him a candidate for the college's honor society for math students, Mu Alpha Theta.

"I like the small class sizes and access to instructors. All the instructors have been very helpful in answering questions like 'when I use a microscope, do I leave my bifocals on or take them off?' and 'what did I do to my laptop and can you fix it?'" Tom says. "Carol Bischof (M State biology instructor) has helped me remember things and learn new ones."

When he's not studying, Tom works as a peer tutor in the college's Center for Academic Success, assisting fellow students with anatomy and physiology, biology, chemistry and other classes. He also works in the maintenance department on campus and is a Volunteer Firefighter and First Responder in Vining.

"My background sort of led me to apply for the nursing program," Tom says. "I've already done CPR - successfully - and seen a lot of blood and broken bones. I'm also a motorcyclist and it's only a matter of time before you end up helping someone out with an injury on the street."

After finishing the program and passing the board exams, Tom would like to work in psychiatric nursing or in emergency medicine.

About 29 percent of students attending M State at the Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Moorhead and Wadena campuses and online are age 25 and over. Like Tom, some are dislocated workers enhancing their skills and preparing to enter new careers. "You will not be alone," Tom says.

Dislocated workers now have an unprecedented opportunity to take advantage of federal funding that will pay for training to acquire new job skills. Historically, unemployment benefits have paid only for the shortest-term educational programs, but benefits are now available for up to 72 weeks, and federal stimulus dollars have been made available to pay for books and tuition. Funds also may be available for rent, child care and heating assistance from county social service programs.

Responding to the volume of layoffs in the region, a new partnership has developed between Rural Minnesota CEP and M State to provide easier access to career and benefit information for dislocated workers. Career and educational program information is available by contacting M State Academic Advisor Mark Nelson at 218-846-3756.
"You can work out of any CEP office to go back to college wherever you prefer," Tom says. "I'm working with Susan Swanson out of the Alexandria office. She is very supportive and resourceful. I would not be in college without the help and support of the program. It takes away a lot of the stress not to worry so much about money."

Last modified: June 23rd, 2009 at 01:59pm