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M State-Wadena fast approaching half century mark

e entrances of M State as the college gears up for the fall semester 2011, half a century after its first classes were held in the fall of 1961.

"Throughout the school year, we hope to have a year's worth of activities," Provost Peter Wielinski said.

M State - Wadena, then called Wadena Area Technical Institute (WATI), offered four programs of study: business, electronics, auto mechanics and cosmetology. Minnesota residents age 21 and under, along with veterans age 29 and under, attended with no tuition charge. Older students could attend at $30 per month.

It wasn't until the mid-1970s that the school started to charge tuition, and in a Nov. 8, 1990 article in the Pioneer Journal, Wadena's technical college was described as accessible to students with low incomes.

Wielinski said that the reason for college tuition in general rising much higher than the general rate of inflation was a combination of increased costs and the financial burden being shifted more onto students.

"We've seen elevated costs associated with the public's expectation for quality education, incorporating technology that's expected," Wielinski said. "Plus over the last ten years, we've seen the drastic reduction in state allocations towards the public two-year colleges. Just ten years ago, the state allocation was slightly above 60 percent of the cost of the tuition. Now, the student tuition will pay for just above 60 percent of the cost of tuition, with the state picking up the other 30-some percent. So it's almost been this reversal in ten years."

Even then, Wielinski said, getting the first two years of a four-year degree at M State is far less expensive than the first two years at a public or private four-year college.

The college has gone through several name changes throughout the years, and is now together with three other two-year colleges affiliated with the larger Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system: Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls and Moorhead. Since 2003 they have been called Minnesota State Community and Technical College, but since that was a mouthful, they have been abbreviated as M State since 2008.

In 1958, Superintendent Ted Tofte of the Wadena school district suggested the idea of the Wadena Area Technical Institute.

In 1959, the school board made the formal application to the State Board of Education, with representatives from the school, Chamber of Commerce and Citizens Committee, Rotary, Lions and Jaycees presenting testimony.

In 1960, the school board voted to construct a new building for WATI.

In 1961, a voting referendum passed to pay for the building, and work started that summer. Classes started in the fall with temporary facilities. 76 students enrolled,15 of which were from the Wadena school district and the rest from remaining towns.

The institute's first director was Curtis Swenson.

The first classes were small with only one or two instructors per program: Lowell Rasmussen and Ray Rustand for business, Florence Olson and Esther Westad for cosmetology, Elmer Sell and Marvin Brust for automotive and James Lundquist for electronics.

In 1962, the building was completed. It is the oldest wing of the M State building, which has temporarily housed Wadena-Deer Creek High School after the 2010 tornado. Cosmetology classes were the first to be moved into the new building. A dedication ceremony and open house was held on May 8, with then governor Elmer Anderson as the featured speaker.

Account Clerk Pat Kisacky said that the campus was Minnesota's first building dedicated just to vocational education; older post-secondary vocational institutions were attached to high schools.

The 1990s saw the combining of local colleges into a merged statewide system. In 1995 Northwest Technical College - Wadena gained accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the standard accrediting agency of the Midwest.

37 students received diplomas in the first graduating class of 1962. The numbers rose quickly in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s and 2000s, graduation class sizes fluctuated with factors like shrinking rural families and adding and subtracting programs. The largest graduating class was in 2005, with 424 diplomas given out.

Nowadays, the M State student body is about evenly split between traditional students age 18-25 and non-traditional students over age 25. Because of the recession, some students who had careers before needed to learn a new field after the economic downturn.

Current areas of study being offered include carpentry science, CISCO networking, computer and network technology, construction electricity, cosmetology, electrical lineworker technology, ethetist, HVAC, manicurist, massage therapy, medical administrative assistant, medical coding and insurance, medical office assistant, medical receptionist, medical transcriptionist, nursing and plumbing technology. In addition, students can get their generals and earn an associate of arts transfer degree before moving on to a four-year college.

Dean of Students Monty Johnson said that the recession has affected the trades programs - even though the construction field is more healthy locally, prospective students are more hesitant to choose that area of study.

M State students in programs like carpentry, plumbing and electrical lineworking have contributed to rebuilding housing and infrastructure following the tornado.

Health programs are in big demand, and the computer majors attract gamers - although the classes themselves aren't all fun and games.

"To program those video games, it's a lot of grueling hours in front of the computer screen," Johnson said.

He said that in the future, there will be a restructuring of the telecommunications program to be updated with the modern communications industry. There will also likely be an expansion of the lineworkers program and expansion in the hospitality field.

M State calculated that students pumped $10 million into the area last year, not including tuition and fees.

"They put a lot of money back into our economy," Joanne Volkinskie said.

The many names of M State

1961 - 1971 Wadena Area Technical Institute

1972 - 1987 Wadena Area Vocational Technical Institute

1987 - 1989 Wadena Technical Institute

1989 - 1992 Wadena Technical College

1992 - 2003 Northwest Technical College - Wadena

2003 - present Minnesota State Community and Technical College - Wadena

2008 - present abbreviated M State - Wadena