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Mitchell Tech grad Zampedri finds new path in natural gas technology program

Arkansas native to pursue new career back in home state

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Mitchell Technical College student Emily Zampedri, a native of Arkansas, is scheduled to graduate from the natural gas technology program Friday, May 6, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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MITCHELL — When Emily Zampedri was looking for inspiration while considering what path to take in college, she turned to a brilliant, charismatic hero beloved for his bravery around the world.

“Jason Bourne,” Zampedri said with a laugh in a recent interview with the Mitchell Republic.

Zampedri, a native of Lowell, Arkansas, is only partially kidding. She wound up graduating from the University of Arkansas with a degree in international relations and international security. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and study, but it wasn’t the end of her time in the classroom.

In fact, she will graduate again next week when she crosses the stage to receive her degree from the Natural Gas Technology program at Mitchell Technical College. It will mark the first time a female has attended and graduated from the program since it was changed over from the Propane and Natural Gas program in 2017. Four females had graduated from the program under its former title — the most recent in 2005.

Zampedri, 30, said she was ready to move into her original chosen field when it dawned on her that the career paths offered by her degree were not all she had hoped they would be.

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“As they say, go to college for what you love and then the job will come later,” Zampedri said. “If you get a degree in international relations, you can be a politician and basically nothing else. You can work in peacekeeping, but that is all volunteer, or you work for the government. I didn’t want to work for the government.”

She did end up taking a job in Washington, D.C., but it paid $34,000, and rent in the nation’s capital was extreme, especially for a recent college graduate.

“I didn’t have an option to live far away. I even had a friend that lived up there who is an intelligence officer in the Navy. I asked if I could room with her, and she said yeah, here’s how much rent is, and I’m like, I can’t afford that either,” Zampedri said.

She worked as a 911 dispatcher to help pay for college, and after graduation did some backpacking, spending time in Colorado before heading back to Arkansas to return to her post as a dispatcher. After a family tragedy, she decided she didn’t want to deal with the stress of the job and the tragedy that tended to be associated with it.

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Mitchell Technical College student Emily Zampedri, a native of Arkansas, is scheduled to graduate from the natural gas technology program Friday, May 6, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

So she went from dispatching for 911 emergencies to dispatching for Black Hills Energy, an energy company based in Rapid City with a presence in several states, including Arkansas. She coordinated calls from customers and sent energy technicians out on jobs to handle outages, emergencies and other duties. It was there that her superiors began encouraging her to think about becoming a technician herself.

It took some convincing.

“I had worked there for two years and they were trying to get more females into technical positions, because they had hardly any. So they said 'do you want to do this other job?' I said 'nope, I’m pretty happy with what I have.' They said 'we’ll send you to school', and I said 'extra nope.' They said 'you can pick where you want to go,' and I said 'hmmmm,'” she recalled of their back-and-forth discussion. “Then they said we’ll give you a big raise. And I said now you’re talking.”

Black Hills Energy is a longtime industry partner with Mitchell Technical College, and it was there that the company had their eyes set to send Zampedri for her one-year training course in natural gas systems.

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Like many people in the United States, she had visited South Dakota in the past, but had never really considered it past driving through and visiting Mount Rushmore. But she said she was restless after four years back in Arkansas, and in August 2021, she stepped on campus and got to work.

Zampedri began her studies in a very different line of work than she was used to, but she said she was up for the challenge. The sixth out of seven siblings whose father was a fix-it-yourself type of farmer, she knew her way around a toolbox. But there were plenty of lessons to be learned. Classes revolved around construction and maintenance of natural gas lines, where natural gas comes from, how it gets to where it needs to go and the operation and maintenance of the systems that make that happen. She even learned how to operate a backhoe.

“It’s a bit of a shift, but I’ll have all the background knowledge I need for it,” Zampedri said.

It may be a long way from where she originally envisioned herself, but the move to study at Mitchell Technical College ended up being the right one for her, she said. She has already worked in the field during her return to Arkansas over Christmas break, and plans to return there after graduation to work full-time with Black Hills Energy.

But she has other options within the company if she ever wants a change of scenery, she said.

“Most of my family is in Arkansas, but also, Black Hills Energy is in Wyoming, Colorado and Montana. So if I decide that I need to move and get mountains back in my life, I can do that,” Zampedri said.

Clayton Deuter, vice president for enrollment for Mitchell Technical College, said the natural gas program at the school is relatively small compared to some others on campus, but the demand continues to grow for skilled workers in the field.

“I checked the Black Hills Energy site, and there were 53 different openings on the utilities side, and all but five of those were for natural gas,” Deuter said. “And that’s just one company. We can’t even keep up with the demand from one company. So (when) they find people they can send, it helps our program out but it also helps them out down the road.”

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Zampedri said many who go to work in the position she will be taking don’t necessarily have the training she received at Mitchell Tech. Having that education puts a candidate at the head of the hiring line, even if they don’t have an established agreement for employment like she did.

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Mitchell Technical College student Emily Zampedri, a native of Arkansas, is scheduled to graduate from the natural gas technology program Friday, May 6, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

She said attending Mitchell Technical College was a great option for her, and it can be for others as well, especially if they’re not 100% sure what they want to do with their life.

“For somebody coming out of high school, a technical college is a great idea, especially if you don’t know what you want to do. I went for my (original) degree thinking that the jobs would just line up, but they didn’t,” Zampedri said. “Mitchell Tech is not super-expensive, it gets you into a field where you can make really good money, and then if you hate it you have the money to go and do whatever else you want to do. It’s not like four years out of your life.”

For Zampedri, it only took a year for her to be ready to set off on the next phase of her life. It will start Friday, when she will take part in Mitchell Technical College graduation ceremonies.

Crossing that stage will also be a new first experience for her, as well, she said.

“I have to,” Zampedri chuckled. “I have an associate’s degree and a bachelor's degree, and I didn’t walk for either of those. But my bosses are coming, so I have to walk. So this will be the first cap and gown I’ve ever bought.”

Her car will be packed and she’ll be ready to roll back home to Arkansas, a new degree in hand and a re-energized future ahead of her, as soon as the ceremony is over.

“I’ll be packed and ready to go,” she said with a smile. “I’ll walk out, pitch my cap and gown and drive.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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