Like many students entering high school, Nicole Grosz wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do with her life.
But by taking a chance, heeding a little advice from her parents and following a will to get the job done in challenging environments, Grosz found her niche and filled it, going from the first female graduate of the Mitchell Technical College powerline construction and maintenance program to an instructor in the program.
It took some time for her to come full circle and take up a position at the head of the classroom, but she has always been keen for the journey, even if it didn’t always immediately take her in the right direction.
“I didn’t really have any college plans, but I ran track and field in high school, and Dakota State University took an interest, and I was OK with that,” Grosz, a native of Aberdeen, told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “But when I got to looking at the college itself, it dealt a lot with computers. I can get around a computer but I’m not really tech savvy.”
She was also the type of person who prefers to be outdoors as opposed to indoors under a roof. She thought the combination of being cooped up indoors and having to deal with a computer-heavy curriculum didn’t mesh with her vision of the future.
That’s when her mother passed on some advice that got her to Mitchell Technical College.
“Actually, my mom is the one who said I should check out Mitchell Technical College and the powerline program. She worked for the hospital in Aberdeen and one of her co-worker's sons had gone through the program and how much he had liked it,” Grosz said. “So I decided I’d just go out on a limb.”
Grosz, 37, said she found the application process straightforward and was pleased to receive a letter of acceptance to the school. She eventually found herself on campus, a woman in the midst of a classroom full of men. But despite the uneven ratio of men to women, Grosz said she felt comfortable relatively quickly.
“I came here and it actually worked out quite well. I was quite surprised by how well I actually fit in,” Grosz said.
While not the first woman to attend the powerline program at Mitchell Technical College, she was the first to complete it. She said after a brief period of awkwardness, the rest of her class quickly accepted her, and she found herself feeling completely a part of the class.
There were challenges, to be sure. Powerline work is physically daunting work, and while she had been an athlete in high school and was known to work out on occasion, it was still a career that left the entire work crew tired by the end of the day.
She recalled a job she held in Gillette, Wyoming, after graduating from Mitchell Technical College. Working closely with the coal industry, she said the strenuous work and schedule motivated her to keep up with her co-workers.
“It’s a lot more physically demanding,” Grosz said. “I was actually in a lot better shape then than I am now, but everything was heavy. You had to manually lift bells and wires around, and looking at it you wouldn’t think insulators are that heavy. A string of six insulators can weigh 60 pounds, but by the time I was done I could lift the 60 pounds with no problem.”
What started out as a plan to work in Wyoming until something in South Dakota opened up for her ended up being a 14-year stay. She said her return to Mitchell Technical College came when her husband had a business opportunity arise in his hometown of Armour. He left to begin his pursuit of that opportunity while Grosz stayed behind.
Why stay behind? In a bit of serendipity, she had to teach a replacement how to do her job.
“I told my husband that I cannot mow the lawn three times a week, I need something else to do.”
— Nicole Grosz, Mitchell Technical College instructor and alumnus
“An opportunity for my husband arose, so he came back here and I told him when you get established let me know and then I will come back, but you have to give me time because I have to have someone over there for at least three months to adequately train them so they can step in. I can’t just say I’m done Friday. I have to have someone that can at least function without me when I leave.”
She trained in a replacement and joined her husband in Armour, but she felt a little cooped up. As someone who was always working and getting something done, the slower pace of life off the power pole had her itching for things to do.
That’s when her father gave her some advice that took her back to Mitchell Technical College.
“I told my husband that I cannot mow the lawn three times a week, I need something else to do,” Grosz said. “My dad was the one who actually said that I was a driven person, I need structure and balance, and if I don’t have that I’m going to self-destruct.”
She eventually learned Mitchell Technical College was hiring powerline program instructors, and she teasingly told her husband, who had worked as a foreman in the powerline industry, that they should apply. He told her that having been a foreman for so long, he might not be best suited for a teaching role.
She, on the other hand, might be just what the school is looking for, he said.
“He was a foreman, and he said he couldn’t do that because he was so used to the foreman aspect of the job, telling people what to do instead of teaching them. But he said that I should throw in,” Grosz said.
She did just that. One application and an interview later, Grosz was the latest member of the powerline program staff, albeit one who had to readjust from a commercial to an academic environment.
And many things had changed. The class had grown from 50 in her day to 100 in 2021. Students learn new techniques, and learn them much faster than she used to. The equipment has evolved. There are many things that she had to get a grip on as she went from powerline worker to teacher.
Jenna Reis, director of admissions for Mitchell Technical College, said the school and students are lucky to have Grosz. Her experience will benefit all students while also showing female students that they can have the same success as men in the field.
"It's always great when we have alumni that are back as instructors. I think our prospective students really like that. They like to see the love we have for Mitchell Tech as employees, as staff and faculty," Reis said. "Nicole brings a great perspective. She's a female in a male-dominated industry, so it's great to show other females that they have the potential to have so much success in the field."
One thing that hasn’t changed in the nearly 20 years since Grosz was at Mitchell Technical College the first time — the value of real-world experience. She tries to bring that perspective to her students when discussing the ins and outs of the program.
“I can add a snippet from my personal experience into what they’re actually learning. Yes, it’s out of the book, but the fact I can take it and say I’ve done this, and it didn’t work out this way, so I’m impressing on them don’t do it this way,” Grosz said.
She’s only been back at Mitchell Technical College since June, but Grosz is settling into her new role. After some initial nervousness about returning, she has found that she had enjoyed catching up on new methods along with her students, and shedding some working world light on the next generation of powerline workers.
Her experience at Mitchell Technical College has served her well, she said, and she knows its powerline program can hold the opportunity for a rich future if students check it out. She recommended students who may be interested to explore the Mitchell Technical College website and look for opportunities for part-time work with your local electric cooperative. It’s a great way to know if the path is right for them.
That’s what she did, and she now finds herself with a new career, a classroom and students to teach.
“If you can get just some job shadowing with your local (rural electric association), that will give you a taste of what they actually do. Then you can go from there, and say 'yeah, this is what I want,' or 'maybe this isn’t what I want,'” Grosz said.