Support encouraged for new Freeborn County Community Promise scholarship

Published 3:40 pm Friday, April 21, 2023

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Leaders at Riverland Community College and in the Freeborn County business community encouraged representatives from other area businesses Thursday to support the new Freeborn County Community Promise Scholarship.

The scholarship is an initiative that encourages high school graduates in Freeborn County to reach their educational and career goals by staying local and attending Riverland Community College. While in college, the students will learn about career opportunities in the community, and the hope is they will stay in the community to work after graduation.

The scholarship is intended as a gap-scholarship after federal, state and other aid is applied — essentially allowing a student to attend college for free.

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Janelle Koepke, dean of institutional advancement at Riverland Community College, said students must be residents of Freeborn County and graduate from Albert Lea, Alden-Conger, Glenville-Emmons or NRHEG High Schools. They must also have at least a GPA of 2.5, an ACT score of 18 or an ASVAAB score of 31.

The initial goal is to provide scholarships to approximately 80 students, and Koepke said of the $2.44 million needed to fund the scholarship program for five years, about $300,000 is needed for the first year and $535,000 for the second year.

So far, about $725,000 has been pledged through organizations including the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, Albert Lea Convention and Visitors Bureau, the city of Albert Lea, Freeborn County, Freeborn-Mower Electric Cooperative, Cargill, the Albert Lea Education Foundation and others.

The goal is to raise enough funds for the first group of students benefiting from the Community Promise Scholarship to begin in fall 2024.

Barbara Embacher, vice president of academic and student affairs at Riverland, said now more than ever she believes that growing local talent is a key for economic development.

She also talked about the mission statement of Riverland in transforming and changing lives and how the school is dedicated to its employees, its students and the region.

Embacher said she thinks the COVID-19 pandemic has helped people realize the value of essential workers, many of which gain their training through two-year degrees. She said these individuals can make a good wage and have a good life with a two-year degree.

“Opening the doors is what this scholarship is about,” she said.

Koepke said in setting up the scholarship for Freeborn County students, they are learning from other communities that have already set up something previously, including the Austin Assurance Scholarship in Austin, the Red Wing College Promise and Pine County College Initiative.

Speaking specifically about the Austin scholarship, she said 65% of the students benefiting from the scholarship are first-generation college students, and 60% are PELL grant eligible.

According to a survey of those receiving the Austin scholarship, 50% are still working in the community.

Koepke said the program requires partnerships from businesses, individuals and foundations to make it possible.

Bryan Skogheim, director of business development and energy solutions at Freeborn-Mower Electric Cooperative, said the cooperative has gotten involved in the effort because of one of its principles, which is concern for the community.

Kate Wheeldon, general manager at Cargill in Albert Lea, said she moved to Albert Lea two years ago, noting it was important for her to live within the community of the plant where she worked.

She said supporting the scholarship program was something important to their plant team, not only for the potential workforce it could bring to them, but because it would also support the current employees’ children and grandchildren.

Because of the support the local team had for the initiative, they were able to get additional support from the corporate level, she said.

Albert Lea Economic Development Agency Executive Director Phillip Johnson said the scholarship program will set the community apart in retaining and attracting businesses to the community and will support a pipeline for workforce for the years to come.

Albert Lea Superintendent Ron Wagner said he hoped the community would come together to support students and show students different opportunities that are available for them.
“We need to continue to open the doors for our students and support them as they walk through,” Wagner said.