Longtime Edina resident Sherryl Bandt sought part-time employment when her youngest child entered grade school. She was drawn to the position of job coach at Minnesota Life College (MLC), an independent nonprofit with a vision: a world where individuals on the autism spectrum and with learning differences thrive and are valued. Six years later, Bandt transitioned from job coach to job training coordinator to community partnership coordinator.
“What I like most about working at MLC is the amazing community we have developed here,” Bandt says. Work readiness, acquired through training, volunteer opportunities and internships, are a big part of the MLC curriculum. MLC’s Real Skills for Real Life program also includes classroom instruction in banking and budgeting, transportation, meal planning, cooking and even seminars on relationships. Students 17 and older and learn on MLC’s campus, an apartment complex in Richfield, and in the surrounding neighborhood.
Rowan Scherf, a poised 21-year-old junior in MLC’s undergraduate program, says, “My favorite part of the program is the opportunity to socialize.” Scherf, who grew up on a farm in River Falls, Wisc., has autism and didn’t connect with other kids. Sue Nigbur recalls a similar struggle for her son, Dan, 25, another junior with Asperger’s in MLC’s undergraduate program. But “in the car on the way home from our MLC interviews, Dan told us, ‘I think this is where I belong.’ ” That was a year and a half ago. Now, Sue says, “Over Christmas break, Dan was constantly texting his friends.”
Thirty-seven students participate in MLC’s undergraduate program. Thanks to the work of Bandt, marketing and social media coordinator Jessica Zikri, and a host of other dedicated personnel, MLC students have a whopping 92 percent employment after graduation. “Parents of freshmen go from dubious to proud with amazing speed,” says Zikri.
“Our high rate of student employment is a reflection of the many community partners who give our students the practical skills they need for acquiring and keeping a job,” Bandt says. Current and past community partners include Fairview Southdale Hospital, Arc’s Value Village, Minnesota Masonic Home, Rocco Altobelli Salons, True Friends and Opportunity Partners. “The Walgreen’s on York Avenue in Edina created a retail training program specifically for MLC students,” says Bandt. The Southdale YMCA offers classes including yoga and cardio kickboxing uniquely adapted to MLC students. “We sometimes even have ‘outsiders’ in our fitness classes with us,” Scherf says, with a wry smile.
Dan Nigbur recently surprised his family by applying for a second internship at Masonic Homes. “It was his choice,” says Sue. “And it’s not the data entry position we had encouraged.” But Masonic Homes didn’t offer Dan a second internship. Instead, they welcomed him, suggesting he work there once he enters his senior year. “I can’t describe the life changes MLC has brought Dan and our family,” says Sue.
The program draws students from all over, says Bandt, including Texas, Maine and Rhode Island. “And when they graduate, they often don’t want to go back home,” she adds. So, with typical MLC practicality, campus facilities now also exist to accommodate a growing number of MLC graduates—the Community Living Program (CLP). These students participate at MLC using an a la carte menu of services, from social activities and rent assistance to coordinating skills-support classes in independent living at Southdale YMCA.
Many other students are local, such as Elissa Beard, of Edina. Her parents, Gwen and Brad, learned about MLC when they attended one of the school’s annual fundraisers. The evening sparked an inquiry about MLC for their daughter who subsequently enrolled and was later honored as Student of the Month.
“We work to give all of our students skills for the next level,” says Bandt. “What we want most for them is the opportunity to grow.”
To learn more:
- For MLC enrollment information, visit minnesotalifecollege.org and click on “Admissions” or call admissions director Noah Gerding at 612.876.9431.
- While online, check out MLC’s opportunities to donate or volunteer. Tuition, fees, room and board can reach $45,000per academic year. Individual donations and money raised at the annual gala allow MLC to offer scholarships.
- MLC also invites the business community to participate in Career Success Days, where volunteers conduct mock interviews and give students immediate feedback on improving their interviewing skills.
- Consider attending an upcoming John Lighty Series presentation, featuring a variety of topics related to autism and learning differences.
- You can also support MLC by purchasing Real Biscuits for Real Dogs, dog treats made, packaged and marketed by MLC students.