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Build Dakota Scholarship program aims to open tech school opportunities to students

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And while she’s proud of the time she spent at these four-year liberal arts colleges, it’s not where the native Ethan experienced his first post-secondary education. It started at Mitchell Technical College.

“I went to technical college myself,” Juhnke said before the start of the Build Dakota scholarship promotion presentation Wednesday afternoon at Freeman High School. “I went to Mitchell Technical College for two years. When I was there, I did an after school program that I loved and (ended up going) to education at Dakota Wesleyan and then got my master’s degree in US dollars.”

Wednesday’s presentation featured a number of representatives from regional employers and technical colleges speaking with students about the program. The scholarship, established in 2015 through the philanthropic efforts of T. Denny Sanford, other donors, and the state, provides full state college technical scholarships to eligible students.

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The scholarship supports tuition, fees, books, and other program expenses required in eligible technical college programs. Upon graduation, program participants are required to commit to work in South Dakota in their field of study for a period of three years.

Students of any age are eligible for the scholarship.

Junki said the program has evolved since its inception, and she has seen firsthand that students respond to the opportunity to obtain an education in a sought-after field at often far less than the cost of a traditional four-year school. She said three students from the district were part of the program last year.

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“I think we have a lot of students interested in technical colleges. Students are built for work, and technical colleges give them the opportunity to get that degree and find that workspace,” Junke said.

Employers are looking for these students. In 2020, Mitchell Technical College had 99% of graduates who were working outside their field or continuing their education. 91% of these graduates were working in a related field, and 83% of those graduates were working in South Dakota, according to Mitchell Technical College website statistics.

This makes state technical colleges critical for South Dakota to maintain a skilled workforce as well as to keep young, talented families within state borders rather than looking for opportunity elsewhere in the country and the world, which has been a problem for the state.

Students at Freeman High School on Wednesday afternoon listen to a presentation on the Build Dakota Scholarship Program.  (Eric Kaufman/Mitchell Republic)

Students at Freeman High School on Wednesday afternoon listen to a presentation on the Build Dakota Scholarship Program. (Eric Kaufman/Mitchell Republic)

The Build Dakota Scholarship Program has been a force in helping interested students transition them into a position where they can chart their own path while helping to boost the state’s population and economy.

In addition to students receiving the financial benefits of a scholarship, they often meet with an industry partner as part of their scholarship agreement. These business partners work with the South Dakota Scholarship Organization and the State Department of Labor to enroll students, who then agree to work for an employer in South Dakota for three years after graduation. As part of the agreement, these business partners bear a portion of the financial responsibility for that student’s costs.

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This is something that has become more and more common as the scholarship has grown over the past six years.

“It has evolved since its inception,” said Robin Jacobsen, a scholarship advisor at Mitchell Technical College, who was present during Freeman’s presentation. “We offered more full Dakota Building Scholarships initially, but now they are switching to an industry partner format.”

Jacobsen estimated that Mitchell Technical College had roughly 80 or 90 students on scholarship last year, but only 14 of them were full full scholarships, meaning the rest had an agreement with a business partner for employment after graduation.

Eligible programs can be found in schools in the departments of Agriculture, Automotive, Building and Construction, Energy, Engineering, Healthcare, Information Technology, Precision Manufacturing, and Welding. All programs appear to receive interest from scholarship recipients.

“It’s comprehensive,” Jacobsen said.

Mobile scholarship promotions have helped keep prospective students and other interested parties informed of their options. Program representatives have recently given presentations at several small community schools, such as Gayville-Volin, Alceseter-Hudson, Dakota Valley, Avon, and Bon Homme, along with larger schools such as Vermillion and Yankton.

The mobile presentation allows students of all walks of life to learn about the scholarship.

(Scholarship Program) has been really helpful in getting the word out to our smaller communities and schools. “In my opinion, that’s what’s important — the small schools, not just the big ones,” said Michelle Schultz, an employment specialist for the South Dakota Department of Labor. We want small towns to thrive and not die and we want to keep our children here or back. this is important.”

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Schultz said the South Dakota Department of Labor is always ready to work with students participating in the program, whether it’s with simple questions or networking with a participating business partner.

Students at Freeman High School on Wednesday afternoon listen to a presentation on the Build Dakota Scholarship Program.  (Eric Kaufman/Mitchell Republic)

Students at Freeman High School on Wednesday afternoon listen to a presentation on the Build Dakota Scholarship Program. (Eric Kaufman/Mitchell Republic)

“If they’re not sure what they want to do for a job or school, point them in our direction. We’ll happily help them. We’re working right with schools,” Schultz said.

Demi Amundson, Director of the Build Dakota Scholarship Program, said the opportunity to meet prospective students face-to-face is a great opportunity to explain the merits and benefits of art schools. Sometimes a presentation from an outside source may be more attractive to a student who might not have thought the way to art school if it was brought up by a local school employee.

“Having the opportunity to meet the students – some of whom may be hesitant – is a huge opportunity,” Amundson said.

She said about 2,400 students have participated in the program since 2015.

On Wednesday, the group of students in the gymnasium at Freeman High School was vigilant, answering questions from speakers and asking a few of them before the clock ticked off. These students may have the opportunity to participate in a program that can not only land them in a great career, with great pay, but may also help them settle comfortably in South Dakota and bring with them all the benefits that come with educated, well-rounded adults.

Ultimately, Juhnke said, that’s the main goal, no matter what path they take after high school. She said the opportunities offered by programs like the Build Dakota scholarship make up a large part of that.

“The goal is to learn and be a great, working member of society. Art schools are a great option for that,” said Junke.

More information about the scholarship can be found at builddakotascholarships.com.

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