Minnesota college prepares special students for life

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 15, 2013 - 2:22 PM

A Richfield “life college” gives young adults with learning differences the keys to independence.

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Kari Thayer, a graduate of Minnesota Life College, works at ARC Value Village in Richfield, but has kept her ties to the Richfield school.

Photo: Joel Koyama , Star Tribune

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In Michigan, Graham Wagner had no friends. Life after high school looked uncertain.

Then his grandmother got on the Internet and searched for “learning disability and college.” She found the website of Minnesota Life College (MLC) in Richfield.

Wagner is 22 now, in his third year at MLC and not sorry that he left Michigan for Minnesota. He shares an apartment with two roommates, navigates buses and light rail to get downtown for an internship, and knows how to plan and cook a meal. Last week, he interviewed for a job that he was excited about, and got it.

And he has friends.

“I miss my family,” Wagner said. “But my MLC family is all here.”

MLC, a post-high school residential program for youth with learning differences and autism spectrum disorders, took root in Richfield in 1996. Since its founding, it has occupied part of the Colony Apartments with classrooms, offices and living spaces for students.

This year, with $300,000 in donations, MLC created a welcome center for students and remodeled classrooms, offices and student centers. In one area, privacy fences that separated small apartment yards were knocked down to build an open, grassy courtyard with trees, benches and a community garden.

Executive Director Amy Gudmestad said the improvements will help MLC fulfill its mission of helping students learn to live independently. The school’s slogan is “real skills for real life.”

“We have been called the best-kept secret in Richfield,” she said. “People need to know about programs like ours.”

A place for differences

The program was founded in 1996 by Beverly and Roe Hatlen, who had a son with learning differences and saw the dearth of postsecondary programs that emphasized vocational and life skills for learning-disabled youth. That first year, there were 13 students.

Today there are 38 undergraduates, most entering around the age of 21, and 45 in a graduate program that allows young people who have finished their training to keep ties to MLC.

About half of the entering students are from outside Minnesota; most of the in-state students are from outside the Twin Cities. Many have disorders like Asperger syndrome, with difficulty in reading social cues.

MLC costs as much as a private college: about $45,000 a year. That includes room and board, books, a membership in the local Y, and expenses like the food students buy when they go grocery shopping. Financial aid is available, but Gudmestad said the expense is the biggest reason students leave school. The board is trying to raise more money for financial aid.

The undergraduate program lasts three years. Classes emphasize life skills: how to plan a menu, shop for groceries and cook a meal, how to plan, organize an apartment and live independently. There are classes on stress management, social skills training that deals with issues like who is a friend and what is appropriate public behavior, and courses on interviewing for a job, budgeting and navigating public transportation.

“Most of our students will never have driver’s licenses,” Gudmestad said. “The cool thing about our approach is that it’s holistic: where do you sit on a bus, who you ask for help. ... We are always looking at how things play in the real world.”

Many students have lived relatively isolated lives, without many friends and protected by their parents. Gudmestad uses the example of a student who continually slept through alarms and relied on a parent to wake up.

“We’re not moms. Moms always want to make things better,” Gudmestad said. “We can be different and hold them to different standards. … We might put three alarms around the room to wake them up.

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