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On the job learning: Gregory native Wendell leading new state board

Much like the students in South Dakota's technical education system, there's been a lot for Nick Wendell to learn in the past year. Wendell, who grew up in Gregory, took over as the executive director of the South Dakota Board of Technical Educat...

Nick Wendell, who grew up in Gregory, is the Executive Director of the South Dakota Board of Technical Education. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Nick Wendell, who grew up in Gregory, is the Executive Director of the South Dakota Board of Technical Education. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Much like the students in South Dakota's technical education system, there's been a lot for Nick Wendell to learn in the past year.

Wendell, who grew up in Gregory, took over as the executive director of the South Dakota Board of Technical Education in November 2017. At the time, it was a new position created to lead a new board, which governs the state's four technical education institutions, including Mitchell Technical Institute, Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls, Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, and Western Dakota Technical Institute in Rapid City.

Wendell is no stranger to working in higher education in the state. He worked at South Dakota State University for a dozen years, most recently as the director of Student Engagement, prior to the new role. He continues to live in Brookings and also serves on the Brookings City Council.

Wendell spoke to The Daily Republic last week when the Board of Technical Education visited Mitchell for its regular board meeting, discussing how he's acclimated to his new role and what he wants to prioritize in the state's tech schools.

Also discussed is the upcoming Initiated Measure 25, which considers increasing the state tax on tobacco products by at least $1 per pack with the intent of raising money for lowering tuition for technical education students and workforce development.

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During Thursday's board meeting, we heard a lot about the dual-credit programs, which have been a key source in the growth of technical school enrollment. What do you think is the future of those programs?

The dual credit program is an expanding program in the state of South Dakota. We think it's a great program because it exposes students to postsecondary education. We know that the single biggest indicator of a student deciding whether they can do college is giving them a chance to try it, and dual credit is a chance for them to try it, while they're still in a high school setting.

You have experience working in post-secondary education and are familiar with South Dakota. After a year in this job, what stands out about this job that you've liked or what has been surprising?

I feel blessed to be working in such a high caliber system. When you look the technical institutions across the country, South Dakota's system is just top notch, in every metric. Whether it's in quality or caliber of students that we recruit, the number of them that are retained beyond their first year, those that persist to graduation and then those that move on beyond graduation, their placement rates are outstanding. We've got really dynamic programs at each of the institutions, as well. They're serving the community, they're serving the region, touching the whole state.

When you spend some time on any of the four campuses, the physical space is really impressive, too. It kind of gives you goosebumps when you're in the learning laboratories. I remember when I first toured Western Dakota Tech last fall and I'd been on the job for just a few weeks. We were in a Construction Technology laboratory and they had constructed a model home that future electricians were wiring and future plumbers were putting in bathrooms, and you just got the feeling that the young people you were surrounded by were going to be working in communities all over the state in just a few years and that's a pretty cool thing to be a part of.

I think we underestimate what is happening on these campuses and the way it impacts our communities, but when you get a chance to drop in and see young people engaged in that kind of learning, that you know in a couple of years they'll be providing that service across the state, that's pretty cool.

Considering that the board is relatively new and you're relatively new in the job, how do you think this process will mature over the next few years with the scope of the work, and what you want to accomplish?

I think over time we'll be able to be even more strategic in the ways we support the four institutions. Right now, we've been focused on basic operations. How do we pass the baton from the Department of Education to this new board, while continuing to provide the state level support and assistance that they had traditionally gotten from the Department of Education. All of those things still need to be in place but we still have to think long range. So my challenge this year has been balancing the tactical, task-oriented, day-to-day stuff with the long-range vision.

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How do we do strategic planning? How do we grow enrollment? How do we better partner with industry? How do we build facility plans, so that our learning laboratories can be cutting edge and we can bring in technology and space that students and industry need? That takes long range planning. How we consider better the pathways that a student will take from a K-12 environment into post-secondary and then can we articulate agreements so that they can continue that, if they want to continue their education.

All of those things are big-picture things that I'm spending my time and energy on, and that our board members are passionate about, but we've got to balance that with keeping the gears turning in a very active and growing system.

Growing up in Gregory, does that shape your view of what you want to see in the state's technical education schools?

I think almost every day, I think about a young person from a relatively small town in South Dakota and the type of access to post-secondary education that our technical institutes provide, which is so important. I think about the number of first-generation college students that live in communities, large and small across the state. I was a first-generation college student and I know a whole lot of them in my hometown and technical schools can be a great on-ramp for post-secondary education. It is very literal. You really understand the degree program that you're pursuing and what that might create a bridge to.

I also think about how badly our communities need skilled individuals. A community the size of Gregory might have one or two plumbers, and when they reach retirement age, we need more young people training with them and apprenticeships to work under them, but also replace them when they retire.

And those are the type of professions, electricians and diesel mechanics and those working in the health care industry and electrical lineman that we have to continue to replace, generation after generation. I think about it from a student and family aspect, the type of access we create but I also think about it from those young people that, if they want to, can put down roots in those small towns in our state, and buying houses and shopping in grocery stores and doing things that if you're from a small town, you're interested in seeing continue.

We're going to see more about Initiated Measure 25 in the next month. What is it that people need to know about that issue before they vote on it?

It's important for a potential voter to understand that revenue generated through IM 25 will have a direct benefit on students. So from our perspective, our interest in it is, if IM 25 were to pass, it would bring new revenue into our system and it would be passed on to students through the cost of tuition. Right now, our tuition is high among our regional competitors and we know there's students that pursue technical education elsewhere because they can do so more affordably, so if we can use tax revenue from IM 25 to reduce the cost of tuition, we think we can create even more access and keep even more students in South Dakota.

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But I want to make sure people understand that our board and our system didn't introduce IM 25. We're not public advocates for IM 25 but we know that if those revenues were realized through the passage of IM 25, it would have a positive benefit on our students.

Traxler is the assistant editor and sports editor for the Mitchell Republic. He's worked for the newspaper since 2014 and has covered a wide variety of topics. He can be reached at mtraxler@mitchellrepublic.com.
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