Minnesota North College 'meets students where they're at' with AspireNorth

Blandin Foundation awarded a $3 million grant to the program to help build regional skills, resources and capacity in the northeast region among underrepresented individuals.

A woman wearing safety glasses works on a machine.
The new AspireNorth program is available at all six Minnesota North College campuses.
Contributed / Minnesota North College

GRAND RAPIDS — Blandin Foundation and Minnesota North College have joined forces in an effort to address the region's labor challenges through a new workforce education initiative called AspireNorth .

Northeastern Minnesota faces record-high job vacancies, with about two jobs open for every available worker. The region's poverty rate is higher than statewide rates. Additionally, the median annual household income is $14,000 lower than the state as a whole, at $59,000. The 4.3% unemployment rate is an all-time low for the area.

AspireNorth is designed to improve outcomes for students through mentorship, academic support, career navigation, transportation, child care, mental health and employer connections. The Blandin Foundation, a private foundation based in Grand Rapids, awarded a $3 million, three-year grant to support AspireNorth.

The Minnesota North College merger is meant to benefit students in greater magnitudes, simplifying the college experience across all campuses.

"Part of this is understanding the slow deterioration of economics and public funding in rural communities in rural regions," Blandin Foundation CEO and President Tuleah Palmer said. "As those dollars have deteriorated from critical access points like education and our hospitals, rural leaders are having to do more with less resources. The consequence of that is not having an on ramp for non-traditional students to reenter education and workforce training modules that exist."

In May, the community college campuses of Hibbing, Itasca, Rainy River and Vermilion and Mesabi Range colleges in Eveleth and Virginia all merged into a single higher-education institution, Minnesota North College. AspireNorth is now available across all six campuses and five institutions of Minnesota North College.


In the first year, AspireNorth plans to add an American Indian education coordinator, a career navigation coordinator and bolster mental health supports. Trauma-informed training for current staff to recognize signs of life challenges like homelessness, mental health emergencies and substance use, cultural competency and adult learning theory will connect students with resources that help them reach their career goals.

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“Blandin’s investment in Minnesota North College’s AspireNorth project will significantly strengthen our ability to attract and robustly support traditionally underrepresented students in our region by meeting them where they are at as they balance their learning, work and other responsibilities,” said Dr. Michael Raich, president of Minnesota North College in a media release. “In turn, our local business and industries will ultimately benefit from a larger and more diverse group of skilled graduates.”

AspireNorth is a broadened version of Minnesota North's existing Empower program, which seeks to support the education of women entering high-wage, high-demand, non-traditional fields and roles. Empower first began with 10 students at one campus and grew to serve 50 at five campuses. It provided assistance for tuition, child care, transportation and study assistance. More than 50% of Empower participants had job offers before graduating.

Empower alumna Jen Ball spoke about the program's success in placing women like herself into nontraditional industries with significant labor demand.

Ball returned to college in her 30s. The program supported her to attend classes while navigating life with a newborn child, learning disabilities and financial barriers. Ball graduated from Hibbing Community College in 2020. She now works at Victus Engineering, and has returned to HCC for her Associate of Arts degree with a focus on project management.

"I succeeded in ways that I never would have imagined that I would, and a lot of that is due to the support that I've had from programs accessed," Ball said.

Not only will AspireNorth serve women in nontraditional careers like Empower did, but it will also serve other underrepresented individuals like Native people; disconnected youth; those participating in financial and food assistance programs; and veterans and military spouses.

"We need to do a better job at meeting students where they're at, and bringing programming whenever possible to them to reach more students," Raich said.

Brielle Bredsten is the business reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.

She earned a bachelor's degree in Professional Writing & Technical Communication, with minors in Advertising and Creative Writing from Metropolitan State University, in addition to a two-year professional paid internship as reporter/editor of the student newspaper.

She is an award-winning professional writer, photographer and editor based in rural Minnesota. Over the past decade, Brielle Bredsten has contributed more than 1,000 articles, feature stories, non-profit press-releases, photographs and columns. Her work has been published in several community newspapers.

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