By the time class begins at 8:05 a.m. at North Linn High School, Cameron Mesch, Nathan Nissen, Cole Rauch, and Henry Schmidt are an hour into their day at Kirkwood Community College.
The four students are dual enrolled in Kirkwood’s Advanced Welding Technologies program and North Linn. When they receive their high school diplomas in May, they’ll have the first year of their Associate of Applied Science degree finished, too — without spending a dime.
Cameron, Cole, Henry, and Nathan’s early start began their junior year of high school. After taking the two welding courses offered at North Linn, the four classmates attended the Advanced Manufacturing with Robotics and Welding Career Academy at Kirkwood’s Linn County Regional Center.
Kirkwood’s Career Academy programs help high school juniors and seniors from more than 40 Eastern Iowa high schools get a head start on their postsecondary education. With a collection of courses focused on specific careers or areas of interest, participants can earn credits that count toward their high school diploma and future college degree — at no cost to them or their families.
“I knew welding was something I wanted to do in the future,” Henry, 17, said. “When I started classes at the regional center, I had my mind made up. I wasn’t going to school after graduation; I was going straight to the workforce.”
Cameron and Cole, also 17, and Nathan, 18, had the same plan.
“I was not interested in college,” Cameron said.
The quartet said they started the program confident in their welding skills, knowledge, and experience. Maybe even a bit cocky.
“We were used to it,” Nathan said. “We’d been doing it for years.”
“We thought we were good,” Henry added.
“It was a whole different game,” Nathan said.
Instructor Scott Corell didn’t dispute what they could do, but he encouraged them to go further.
“I think a big part of my job is getting them ready for life after high school,” Corell said. “I’m there to teach, but that instruction also includes helping my students build confidence in themselves and their abilities.”
Corell’s North Linn students found themselves learning basic operations and practical skills, such as computer modeling and design analysis, reading blueprints, machine setup, and fabrication basics. As the school year progressed, so did their coursework. Corell saw something in each of them, something that went beyond the curriculum, so he set the bar higher.
They met the new goal every time.
Physical examples of their work are evident in the metal bench Cameron built in the academy’s fabrication course that will be installed on North Linn’s campus and the smoker Cole, Henry, and Nathan helped create out of an old water tank. The smoker will be used for end-of-year Career Academy celebrations at Linn County Regional Center.
“He’s an awesome teacher,” Nathan said. “He knows what you can do before you know it, so he pushes you to go further.”
Eventually, Corell’s encouragement had each of them thinking about life after Career Academy.
“He started talking to me about Kirkwood’s two-year program, suggesting that maybe I could start it as a senior and not have to pay for it,” Cameron said. “I didn’t even know that was possible.”
At the time, it wasn’t. Career Academy students earn college credit; they don’t begin the full-time program while still attending high school. North Linn High School Counselor Jaci Hilmer, Linn County Regional Center Director Mindy Thornton, and Kristy Black, Executive Dean of College Credit in High School, worked together to create a plan to change that.
Cameron, Cole, Henry, and Nathan are the first Career Academy graduates to attend Kirkwood while still in high school. They’re at Kirkwood every weekday at 7 a.m. as welding students. After four to five hours of instruction, depending on the day’s schedule, they return to North Linn for afternoon classes.
“This group — I don’t know if it’s them or the fact that they’re still in high school — but they’re great,” said Dane Dermody, assistant professor of Advanced Welding Technologies. “They have initiative. They work hard and they want to work hard.”
Despite being younger than the program’s other first-year students, Dermody said the quartet is comfortable with the welding lab and its equipment, thanks to their Career Academy education. In fact, they’re so far ahead, they are working on projects separate from the class.
“They are picking up and reframing skills they’ve already learned,” Dermody said. “They have the ability to take on projects and share the workload within their strengths. I don’t have to divvy up tasks because they do it on their own.”
Despite their initial plans not to attend college, each student says their Career Academy experience changed their minds. All four will continue their education at Kirkwood and earn their degree.
“If you really want to make it out in the world, you probably won’t get far with a high school diploma,” Cole said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, aging infrastructure requires the expertise of welders to help rebuild bridges, highways, and buildings. Welders also are in demand in the metal fabrication, automobile, manufacturing, and construction industries. This need will only increase as older workers retire.
“When students can be put into a situation where they have hands-on learning and time to develop their strengths, that takes pressure off the workforce because employers won’t have to train new hires,” Dermody said. “Cameron, Cole, Henry, and Nathan are going to leave Kirkwood with better opportunities because they started so young.”