FREEMAN — Katie Juhnke serves as the grades 6-12 principal for the Freeman School District. Her alma maters include Dakota Wesleyan University and the University of South Dakota.

And while she’s proud of the time she spent at those four-year liberal arts universities, it is not where the native of Ethan had her first experience in the world of post-secondary education. She got started at Mitchell Technical College.

“I went to a technical college myself,” Juhnke said prior to the start of the Build Dakota Scholarship Roadshow presentation Wednesday afternoon at Freeman High School. “I went to Mitchell Technical College for two years. When I was there I did an after-school program that I liked and (I ended up going) into education at Dakota Wesleyan and then got my masters at USD.”

The presentation Wednesday featured a number of representatives of regional employers and technical colleges on hand to talk to students about the program. The scholarship, founded in 2015 through the philanthropic efforts of T. Denny Sanford, other donors and the state, provides full-ride scholarships to state technical colleges for students who qualify.

The scholarship supports tuition, fees, books and other required program expenses in eligible technical college programs. After graduation, those in the program are required to commit to working in South Dakota in their field of study for three years.

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Students of any age are eligible for the scholarship.

The program has evolved since its inception, Juhnke said, and she has seen firsthand that students respond to the chance to get an education in an in-demand field at what is often far less than the cost of a traditional four-year school. She said three students from the district were part of the program last year.

“I think we have a lot of students who are interested in technical colleges. Students are built to work, and technical colleges allow them the opportunity to get that degree and find that job space,” Juhnke said.

Employers are looking for those students. In 2020, Mitchell Technical College had a 99% rate of graduates that were either out working in their specified field or were continuing their education. There were 91% of those graduates working in a related field, and 83% of those graduates were working in South Dakota, according to statistics from the Mitchell Technical College website.

That makes state technical colleges crucial to South Dakota for maintaining a skilled workforce as well as keeping talented young families within state borders instead of seeking opportunity elsewhere in the country and the world, something that has been a problem for the state.

Students at Freeman High School Wednesday afternoon listen to a presentation on the Build Dakota Scholarship program. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)
Students at Freeman High School Wednesday afternoon listen to a presentation on the Build Dakota Scholarship program. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

The Build Dakota Scholarship program has been a force in helping funnel interested students into a position where they can chart their own course while helping bolster the state population and economy.

In addition to students receiving the financial benefits of the scholarship, they often group with an industry partner as part of their scholarship agreement. Those business partners work with the scholarship organization and the South Dakota Department of Labor to sign up students, who then agree to work for that South Dakota employer for three years after graduation. As part of the agreement, those business partners take on a portion of the financial responsibility for that student’s costs.

That is something that has become more and more common as the scholarship has grown over the past six years.

“It has evolved from when it started,” said Robin Jacobsen, a scholarship adviser with Mitchell Technical College, who was on hand during the Freeman presentation. “We gave out more full-ride Building Dakota Scholarships in the beginning, but now it’s morphing into the industry partner format.”

Jacobsen estimated that Mitchell Technical College had approximately 80 or 90 students on the scholarship last year, but only 14 were complete full-ride scholarships, meaning the rest had an agreement with a business partner for employment following graduation.

Eligible programs at the schools can be found in the departments of agriculture, automotive, building trades and construction, energy, engineering, healthcare, information technology, precision manufacturing and welding. And all the programs seem to be receiving interest from scholarship recipients.

“It’s across the board,” Jacobsen said.

The traveling scholarship roadshow presentations have helped keep potential students and other interested parties in the know about its options. Representatives of the program recently held presentations in several small-community schools, such as Gayville-Volin, Alceseter-Hudson, Dakota Valley, Avon and Bon Homme, along with larger schools like Vermillion and Yankton.

The traveling presentation allows students of many different stripes to learn about the scholarship.

(The scholarship program) has really been instrumental in getting the word out to our smaller communities and schools. In my opinion, that’s what’s important - the small schools, not just the big ones,” said Michelle Schultz, an employment specialist with the South Dakota Department of Labor. “We want small towns to thrive and not die off and we want to keep our kids here or coming back. That’s important.”

Shultz said the South Dakota Department of Labor is always willing to work with students involved with the program, whether it be with simple questions or for connecting with a participating business partner.

Students at Freeman High School Wednesday afternoon listen to a presentation on the Build Dakota Scholarship program. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)
Students at Freeman High School Wednesday afternoon listen to a presentation on the Build Dakota Scholarship program. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

“If they’re not sure what they want to do for a job or school, point them in our direction. We will happily help them. We work right along with the schools,” Schultz said.

Demi Amundson, program manager for Build Dakota Scholarship, said the chance to meet face-to-face with potential students is a great chance to expound on the benefits and advantages of technical schools. Sometimes a presentation from an outside source can be more appealing to a student who may not have considered the technical school road if brought up by a local school employee.

“Having the opportunity to meet with the student body - some of whom may be undecided - is a huge opportunity,” Amundson said.

She said approximately 2,400 students had taken part in the program since 2015.

The student group Wednesday in the Freeman High School gymnasium was attentive, answering questions from the speakers and posing a few of their own before the hour was through. Those students may have a chance to take part in a program that not only could get them into a great career, with great pay, but it may also help them settle comfortably in South Dakota and bring with them all the benefits that come with educated, well-rounded adults.

Juhnke said, in the end, that that is the main goal, no matter what road they take after high school. Chances provided by programs like the Build Dakota Scholarship are a major part of that, she said.

“The goal is to learn and to be a great member and a working member of society. Technical schools are a great choice for that,” Juhnke said.

More information on the scholarship can be found at builddakotascholarships.com.