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.

“We need them to be independent so when parents are gone, they’re OK.”

Vocational classes stress job and internship skills, and in their senior year students look for internships. The employment rate for seniors and graduates who seek jobs is 93 percent. The school has continuing relationships with institutions like the Minnesota Masonic Home, Fairview-Southdale Hospital, Renaissance Inn Hotels, Walgreens and other businesses.

Students also run a business making dog biscuits that are sold at ARC Value Village and some local businesses. The revenue goes back to the school.

Graduates keep ties to school

As the number of MLC graduates grew, many rented apartments nearby, reluctant to go home when their friends were in Richfield. But uneasy faraway parents would call MLC, asking staff members to check on their kids to see how they were doing or find out if they were coming home for Christmas.

“We started to see some graduates isolating themselves again,” Gudmestad said.

So in 2005, MLC started its graduate community.

Graduates, many of whom continue to rent Colony apartments, pay varying monthly fees for different levels of continued support from MLC. Some graduates only attend social events, while others visit staff regularly.

One of the graduates who is sticking close by is Kari Thayer. Thayer, 27, is from Buffalo, N.Y., and graduated from MLC in 2008. She rents an apartment in the Colony complex.

“I just moved into a one-bedroom and I love it,” she said. “I still get support from MLC, and I’m close to all my friends.”

She has a job at ARC Value Village in Richfield that she likes a lot. Her first job there was sorting donated goods, but after six months she asked to be a cashier and she has had that job ever since.

Thayer is briskly efficient and quick to smile as she checks out ARC customers. She still gets full support from MLC so she can go to people she knows for advice and answers to questions. She said that’s something she wouldn’t have had if she’d returned to Buffalo.

“I am more independent here, and I have more friends here,” she said. “And this is a cleaner environment.”

Students and graduates repeatedly mention having friends as one of the advantages of MLC, and Gudmestad said that is the first thing mentioned by parents. Many say their children, vaguely out of step in their home high schools, never had the social support of peers the way they do at MLC.

MLC’s oldest graduate is almost 40 and still lives nearby. As the school faces new growth — Gudmestad said the number of undergraduates is expected to increase by half and the number of graduates by 68 percent in the next five years — one of the questions the MLC board is wrestling with is what the future of the graduate program will be. Even now, there are few programs like MLC across the country.

“There is no one to mentor us on this,” she said. “We need to figure out what is the future for our graduates.”

For now, though, their mission is clear.

“They have their own leases, they’re paying their bills and getting to work,” Gudmestad said. “These guys will have lives after their parents are gone.”