Preparing students for careers and life: JAG holds career development conference in Mitchell

Jobs for America’s Graduates now has 11 programs in South Dakota school districts

Kim Claussen, right, Jobs for America's Graduates specialist for Bennett County High School, speaks with students during the JAG-SD Career Development Conference Tuesday, March 7 on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

MITCHELL — Usually during spring break at Dakota Wesleyan University, the campus is quiet and devoid of students, most of whom are taking a break from the rigors of the college school year.

But that wasn’t the case Tuesday.

Despite most students away from their studies, the campus in Mitchell was full of high school students from around the state as they took part in the JAG Career Development Conference. The event featured around 150 students from around the state as they participated in campus tours and competitions in a variety of areas that showcase students’ employable skill sets.

“These competitive events are designed to showcase the skills students learn throughout the JAG program,” said Beth Schneider, JAG-SD state director. “For example, students who compete in employability skills vie for a fictitious job using their real skills, like completing an application, preparing a cover letter and resume and interviewing.”

Jobs for America’s Graduates is a program supervised by the South Dakota Department of Education and is proven to help students persist through graduation. Jobs for America's Graduates is a state-based national non-profit organization dedicated to supporting young people of great promise. The program’s mission is to empower South Dakota's young people with the skills and support to succeed in education, employment and life, according to the program website.


The program focuses on helping students develop social and living skills that can serve them at several stages of life. Knowing how to act at a job interview or how to hold an engaging conversation with a job recruiter are skills that can be difficult to obtain without real-life experience. College applications are saturated in forms to fill out. Applying for a home loan can mean budgeting for down payments and other financial preparations.

The program operates 11 programs across the state, including Andes Central High School and Middle School in Lake Andes; Bennett County High School in Martin; Lyman High School in Presho; Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington high schools in Sioux Falls; Todd County High School in Mission and Wagner High School and Middle School in Wagner.

Students competed in six events, including employability skills, financial literacy, knowledge bowl, prepared speaking, project-based learning and middle school career exploration.

Also included was a tour of the DWU campus and small-group workshops highlighting campus programs, as well as a chance to hear from JAG-SD alumni.

Jennifer Schelske was on hand as the JAG specialist for Washington High School in Sioux Falls, which is in its first year of participating in the program. She said the program is of great benefit on several levels to Washington students.

“The department of education and our superintendent and administration really believe that this was needed to support students in a different way, that student needs weren’t being met in other classes or in other ways,” Schelske said. “And with the support of the department of education it has been implemented at all four (Sioux Falls public high schools).”

She said the specific activities of the Career Development Conference provides a wide spectrum of competition events that help hone the kind of skills that will become useful as students make their way through high school and into the employer or college world that comes afterward. It is also beneficial for specialists to come together and share experiences and ideas, especially for first-year specialists like Schelske, who had 26 students on hand for Tuesday’s activities.

“This allows them to showcase the skills they have been working on, such as leadership skills, employability skills, community service, project based learning and all that to showcase and compete against other JAG students in the state,” Schelske said. “It’s also great for students to collaborate with each other and hang out for a day with each other for a day. And it’s good for JAG specialists to be able to get together and collaborate on what we’re all doing.”


The Jobs for America's Graduates program is in its first year at Sioux Falls Washington High School, and JAG specialist Jennifer Schelske said the program is already making an impact on students.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

Jobs for America’s Graduates helps students overcome many issues, regardless of their socioeconomic standing. And the students take to the programs with enthusiasm, Schelske said.

“They’re so grateful for this opportunity. They wouldn’t have known some of these things. They feel like they’re more prepared for college. Or some want to jump straight into the workforce and they feel more prepared to do that because they know what skills they need and what employers are looking for,” Schelske said. “I tell them they don’t need to know what they’re going to do for the rest of their life, but they should know who they are so they can move on to that next chapter in their life.”

While Schelske is just getting the Washington High School program underway, Kim Claussen was putting the finishing touches on a decade of working with JAG through her local program at Bennett County High School. She has helped students navigate the sometimes scary waters of life during and after high school, and has come to see the benefits of the JAG program firsthand.

Simply taking a step outside their home school district can be an eye-opening experience, she said.

“Networking. Working on their leadership skills. Getting to know each other. They get to experience touring a college,” Claussen said. “Some of the kids I brought here (today) have never stayed in a hotel before, so that was an experience for some of them.”

Claussen, who said she is retiring from teaching this year after 32 years, had 18 students on hand Tuesday for the activities at DWU out of 33 in the program at Bennett County this year. She has been heavily involved in the program over the years, having served for a time as the state director before it was turned into a full-time position, and she has seen the progress and impact the program has made on the lives of students.

And it’s made a mark on her life, too. She refers to herself as a mother hen, someone who keeps spare clothing on hand for JAG students who may need a jacket and tie for a job interview or other semi-formal occasion. It’s all a part of wanting them to be successful and supporting them along that journey.

Becoming invested in these students’ lives changes it from a teacher-student relationship to an almost parent-child relationship.


“I’m old, so I’m old school. We have a dress code, and I make my kids follow it. So when we go to places like this, they are dressed as professionally as can be. I have clothes in my room they can beg and borrow if they want,” Claussen said. “You become a little family and I’m the little mother hen. These kids aren’t mine, but they’re mine and I’m going to help them any way I can.”

Corbin Kramer gives a tour of the Dakota Wesleyan University campus to high school students who were on hand for the Jobs for America's Graduates Career Development Conference Tuesday, March 7.
Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic

April Hollingsworth, a sophomore at Wagner High School and a participant in the JAG program, said the conference Tuesday was a great way for students to practice the skills they had been working on while also getting a chance to mingle with similarly-minded young adults, even if the day started a little early.

“We start early in the day. I woke up at 4:50 a.m.,” Hollingsworth said with a laugh. “It’s a lot of activities, and it’s about always meeting new people. I’ve talked to a lot of people today that I’ve never met, and it’s nice to spark conversations with them. Knowing that South Dakota is as small as it is, there are more people you get to meet every single day. It’s exciting to see students doing this.”

Program leaders hope that more and more students follow in the footsteps of Hollingsworth and other students on hand Tuesday. And the more that do, the more they will be there to help guide them on their journey to the next stage of their life, even if they don’t exactly know what they want to do with it yet.

“Everyone has a different path,” Schelske said. “We will continue meeting the needs of students as much as they need, so if there are more students, yes we will keep growing and expanding. I expect it to grow and expand.”

Jobs for America's Graduates slowly expanding footprint in state, officials say

Representatives at the conference also elected South Dakota's first delegration of state JAG officers Tuesday at the conference. Those officers are:

  • President: Melina Shields, Lyman High School
  • Secretary: Tegyn Kolb, Bennett County High School
  • Parliamentarian: Brody Stenger, Roosevelt High School, Sioux Falls
  • School representative: Sophia Langenbau, Lyman High School
  • School representative: Charles Kocer, Wagner High School
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
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