Cook County Higher Education (CCHE) recently celebrated one year at its new campus in Grand Marais, but the organization has actually been around a lot longer than that.
“We’ve been around for 14 years, which is an amazingly long time,” says Paula Sundet Wolf, CCHE's executive director. “It started off in the Community Center, and Diane Booth was involved with that process. And then they moved over to the lower level of the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic. I think that was their next step, and they were there for quite awhile.”
Fast forward to today; Higher Education has a home. The new North Shore Campus, in the former Baptist Church at 300 West 3rd Street in Grand Marais, is a warm, welcoming place, with spacious classrooms and the latest technology. It’s mid-morning on a cool November day and four nursing students are in the large basement classroom, their attention focused on a big TV at the front of the room.
“I’m in the RN program here at Higher Ed through Hibbing Community College,” says one of the students. "This is the first half of the second year, so we should be done in May. This is a great place to be going to school. And I like the ITV (Interactive Television) and the ability to take classes here in Grand Marais.”
Bertyl Lindquist agrees.
“It’s a pretty good setup. It’s really nice to be here in Grand Marais and get to be going to college. It’s a plus.”
Offering nurses training and other programs in the medical field is representative of Higher Education’s goal to provide access to education and training that will result in better job opportunities and higher wages. But this wasn’t the focus at the beginning, says director Paula Sundet Wolf
“Originally they thought, oh, people want to earn their bachelor’s degree, or they want to take college level courses just for interest, and they discovered, well, that’s not actually true, that people are looking for things that translate into living wage employment. So it shifted our focus over these last 14 years, of really working on programs that fit with our local economic needs. Therefore we do the RN program, or the LPN program, a lot of nursing-related programs; medical lab tech, radiologic technician, those kinds of things. And then also, some of the other business-related type things, as far as the food service certification that’s required by the state department of health and alcohol server training, some of the business skills type training.”
Lori Hommerding is a lifetime resident of Grand Marais with two children in college. Today she’s the only person in the large upstairs classroom, once the church sanctuary, with its high peaked ceiling and big windows overlooking the quiet, residential streets of Grand Marais. Hommerding sits at a table directly in front of a large TV with a camera mounted near it. On the screen, an instructor stands at the front of a classroom full of students, the backs of their heads visible. They can see and hear Hommerding, and she can take part in discussions and ask questions.
“Mrs. McGarry, did you put it on the board? Could you turn the camera so I can see it?
Hommerding is in her second year of college through Higher Ed. She’s going for a degree in Human Services and Chemical Dependency.
“This class is called Effective Human Relations," says Hommerding. "I’m actually enrolled through Mesabi Community Technical College and then I’m also taking a couple online classes from Lake Superior College that all go to the same degree.”
“I’d love be in class the whole time, but it doesn’t allow that. I just can’t travel and work at the same time. Because I work full time and then go to school full time so this is the only way that I can do it. So, I’m very thankful. Otherwise I’d never be able to go to college."
Cook County Higher Education is known outside of the community as a unique and innovative non-profit, a model for providing residents of rural areas with access to continuing education and training that will enhance opportunities for living wage employment. Director Paula Sundet Wolf knows first hand how important that is.
“Before I started taking classes, my qualifications were to work as a waitress and, which I enjoyed, I didn’t mind doing that. But it’s one thing when you choose to do that because you wish to as opposed to that’s your only choice, and I like that we can give people choices.”
To check out Cook County Higher Education, visit their website at www.boreal.org/highered/
, or visit the campus at 300 West 3rd
Street in Grand Marais.