One Mitchell Technical College student is getting a leg up with tuition and schooling costs thanks to a scholarship funded in part by a foundation started by Mike Rowe, the television personality known for his time on the television series “Dirty Jobs.”
Austin Wenner, a native of Atkinson, Nebraska, was informed earlier this year that he had been named a recipient of a Finish Strong Scholarship. The scholarship, valued at $5,000, is expected mostly to go toward tuition for Wenner, who is in his second year at Mitchell Tech as a precision agriculture technology major.
“I didn’t think I was going to get it,” Wenner said. "I really didn’t. It was quite a surprise.”
The Finish Strong Scholarship is open to students entering their second year at one of the four South Dakota technical colleges. The scholarship is funded by the Mike Rowe Works Foundation and matched by the South Dakota Future Fund. The scholarship was created by Rowe, who created the program “Dirty Jobs” and serves as the CEO of the foundation, after he visited South Dakota in 2018 on a tour of technical schools and businesses.
That was a year before Wenner stepped foot on the Mitchell Tech campus, when he became a student looking to study precision agriculture technology. He said the school, which he discovered when representatives visited his hometown on a recruiting trip, seemed particularly well-suited to help him achieve his goals.
“They came to where I went to high school and did a presentation, and there were a couple of guys older than me (who had attended Mitchell Tech), so I looked into it and thought it was a pretty good deal,” Wenner said.
While not having a heavy background in agriculture, aspects of precision agriculture technology held an appeal to him. He had worked for farmers during his high school days, but said the full-time life of owning and operating a farm was probably not for him.
“I helped on a farm through my high school summers, so I’m familiar with the farming world. But being an owner, not as much,” Wenner said.
Wenner said he became aware of the scholarship through an email sent out by Mitchell Tech. It included forms to fill out and required an essay on why Wenner thought he would be a worthy recipient of the scholarship. He said he focused on his grades and the fact that he also held a job working at Cabela's in Mitchell when he wasn’t in the classroom.
Those in charge of selecting the recipients responded well to Wenner’s application, and soon informed him that he would be one of 10 recipients of the scholarship in South Dakota. He is the only recipient of the scholarship attending Mitchell Technical College this year.
“(In the essay) I focused on academics and being a 4.0 students and that I was also working 30 hours a week at Cabela’s,” he said.
The aspect of Wenner being a combination of working man and technical college student apparently stood out to those in charge of making the selection, and soon Wenner found himself with a nice boost to his school fund.
“It was huge. (The funds were) sent to the school, so it went toward tuition and fees, and whatever I didn’t spend on the first semester will carry on to the second. So that helps a whole lot.”
It was an added bonus to know the scholarship was the brainchild of Rowe, who Wenner recalls watching on television when he was younger. He said he enjoyed the fact that Rowe highlighted jobs and workers who don’t always get the credit for their contributions to society and the economy.
“I watched Dirty Jobs quite a bit. I like how he highlighted that these were the people who do the work behind the scenes. They keep the world going round,” Wenner said. “I thought that was kind of cool. I was probably 10 years old when it came out, but it was one of those things where I kind of thought it was neat.”
A release on the scholarship states the Finish Strong Scholarship was created by Build Dakota Scholarships and the Mike Rowe Works Foundation in 2019. Rowe speaks regularly about the country’s dysfunctional relationship with work, and he challenges the persistent belief that a four-year degree is the best path for most people.
Since its inception, it has granted or helped facilitate the granting of more than $6 million in scholarships or grants in support of technical and vocational education.
Wenner is already looking to seize on some of those opportunities after he graduates this fall. The education he received at Mitchell Tech has opened many doors for him, he said. So many, in fact, that he’s not entirely sure what direction his future career will take when he finally leaves campus.
“I think as of now I’ll probably move back home and I think maybe be a custom applicator. That will be dealing with the precision equipment on the sprayers and whatnot. We’ll see where that leads and go from there,” Wenner said. “I just feel that’s going to be the future of how ag is going to work. It’s something that’s always going to be evolving. I don’t think we’re ever going to get away from it.”