The Magazine of The University of Montana
Missoula College Grads Reap Benefits of Relevant, Practical Education
Story By Erika Fredrickson
Photos by Todd Goodrich
Kacey Swanson, a Missoula College grad who is now the kitchen manager at The Depot in Missoula, shows off a decadent dessert she created. Thanks to the Culinary Arts Program at Missoula College, Swanson landed a job right after she graduated.
Ennis High School to attend The Art Institute of Seattle for graphic design. It was the kind of career path any young, ambitious person would dream of.
“That was what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” Swanson says. “I was going to be the best graphic designer in the universe.”
But the romance for design ended after she realized she’d be sitting at a desk for hours on end. She moved back to Montana, where life got a little more complicated. She was a single mother raising her daughter, working as a server at The Depot restaurant in Missoula and making good money. But she craved a career with the opportunity for long-term growth.
Swanson, age twenty-six, always had a passion for cooking: pizzas, homemade pasta, Thanksgiving dinner, any dessert. She had a reputation among her friends for crafting elaborate birthday cakes. Once, she made a cake with lottery tickets hidden inside. Another was Lady Gaga-themed with an edible 3-D mask emerging from the top layer. Baking came to her naturally, and she finally realized it was her true calling. She looked into the Culinary Arts Program at The University of Montana’s Missoula College, sat on the idea for a year, then applied. And that decision has paid off. In fact, like so many other students looking for a fresh start at the college, Swanson flourished.
Missoula College, formerly the College of Technology, was founded in 1966 with the purpose of providing fast-track technical and occupational education. For years, it was seen as an inexpensive way to a practical education, especially for nontraditional students in a midlife career change. It’s also had to battle the perception of being a trade school rather than a higher learning institution.
But changes are being made to eclipse those outdated views. Missoula College has built a reputation for excellent faculty and thirty-five highly praised programs across five academic departments that are relevant to coveted jobs in the world today. As the local food movement gains momentum, the Culinary Arts Program becomes more significant. As the buzz of clean energy mounts, students in the Energy Technology Program discover new ways to address climate change. In the realm of health care, where some of the most contentious debates in our country brew, the Nursing and Health Information Technology programs work to untangle a complicated system. As the college looks to build a new structure on UM’s South Campus, it’s finding its niche among career-minded students with big ambitions.
Culinary programs have reputations for being cutthroat, and the Missoula College program is no different. Swanson came into the program with fifty other students and graduated with about eight. It’s a hard-core, noncoddling environment where classes often begin at a sleepy 6 a.m.
“It’s not like they go, ‘Here’s your recipe, go out and make this stew, and have fun, kids!’” says Swanson. “No. You have to do a lot before you get in the kitchen. And once you’re in the kitchen, it doesn’t get any easier. You have pressure from your instructors and your peers and yourself, and then you go home and you’re sweating and you’re in this crazy uniform and you’re not even done because you have homework. And you’re like, ‘What the heck am I doing?’”
She recalls one late night finding herself awake trying to write a recipe for a cracker. How would she present it in class the next day? Should it be Parmesan? What kind of garnish should it have? Should it be in the shape of a leaf? Why should it be in the shape of a leaf? And why was this so hard?
The experience opened Swanson’s eyes to the details that separate a good cook from a great one.
“Every different cooking method for food offers a different flavor, but also it offers a different eye texture—whether it be color or crispness or if it’s moist, if it looks hot or glazed,” says Swanson. “You eat with your eyes and nose before you eat with your mouth.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the hospitality field is the top retail employer in the U.S., and it predicts an increase of thirty percent over the next two years. Students in UM’s Culinary Arts Program can earn either a certificate in culinary arts or an associate of applied science degree in food-service management. Either opens the doors to a number of options. Some students gun for those romanticized top-chef positions, but jobs in food service go far beyond that—hotels, restaurants, and resorts all need skilled cooks. And they need managers, sales reps, and product developers who understand, for instance, the art of a cracker.
Getting there takes some patience.
“When they first come out of the program, they are not qualified chefs,” says Chef Tom Campbell, director of the Culinary Arts Program at Missoula College. “You need experience. Something you do a few times in [culinary school], you need to do 200 times in a real kitchen.” But, he adds, “When they come out of the program, they will be able to work in any kitchen in the world.”
Swanson now works as kitchen manager at The Depot, where she plans menus, calls in food orders, does inventory, and creates specials like her recent peach cobbler. People come to The Depot for steaks and seafood, drink specials, and classic desserts. But the adventurousness and meticulousness that Swanson learned in school has allowed her to be confident in how she keeps the menu inspired.
“I think the one thing that pushed me through was that the instructors give so much of themselves,” she says. “What they gave me was something that I could never get from a book.”
Blowin’ in the Wind
Robert Potts, who completed Missoula College’s Energy Technology Program, works as a wind operations and maintenance technician at the Judith Gap Wind Energy Center. The center is managed by Invenergy, the largest independent wind-power generation company in North America.
Robert Potts’ motivation to attend Missoula College began with the birth of his son. It was 2008, and he was working as the head of building maintenance at Custer County High School in his hometown of Miles City.
“I wanted to find a better-paying job to support my family,” he says.
In his search, he came across a newspaper ad about Missoula College’s Energy Technology Program and its various partnerships.
“The ad stirred some interest, since Miles City was a common stopping point for transporting wind turbine blades and tower sections,” says Potts. “I’d always wanted to know more about wind energy, so I decided to take a chance and sign up for the program.”
The Energy Technology Program at Missoula College approaches the field in two ways: renewable energy generation and energy conservation. Renewable energy harnesses natural resources such as wind, sun, and water to produce power. Energy conservation looks at how to cut down on what we use. In a class called “Smart Grid,” students learn how to incorporate photovoltaic and small wind systems into residential homes. In other classes, students puzzle out one of Missoula’s most common gripes: the lack of a strong recycling program.
“I think we’ll probably see recycling take off in Missoula soon,” says Bradley Layton, director of the Energy Technology Program.
Layton says the program uses the most innovative technologies. Its solar car, for instance, uses the highest-end batteries. Students also have access to solar cell technologies so new that they’re just available to the military through the government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Last year, students taking the energy practicum worked on a lighter-than-air turbine—the kind that wind companies currently are seeking patents on.
These kinds of technological explorations inspired Potts. Not only was he interested in how the technology worked, not only could he foresee a well-paid job in his future, he also realized he was working in a field that could change the world for the better.
As a student he went on the program’s field trip to Wheatland County, where the Judith Gap Wind Energy Center is located. He was struck by the place.
“The sheer grace and beauty of wind power generation can be seen there,” he says. “The turbines seemingly blend naturally into the background with the mountains. It was during that visit that I knew that I wanted to work in the wind-energy field.”
Like so many Missoula College students, Potts was a nontraditional student. He completed the program online while working two jobs and raising a family. When he finished, though, he got his wish: He started working as a wind operations and maintenance technician at Judith Gap for Invenergy, the largest independent wind-power generation company in North America.
Day-to-day he has a variety of responsibilities, including performing checks of the tower torque, generator alignment, and yaw brake system, along with grease and filter changes and general inspections. He also climbs the turbines to thoroughly clean them, troubleshoot, and do repairs.
“The [Energy Technology Program] is important because it helps folks learn about an industry that is critical to our future,” says Potts. “The most important thing I learned is that with hard work and dedication, you really can change
Power to Empower
Cynthia Coutinho poses in front of a CT scanner at Mineral Community Hospital in Superior, where she works as a registered nurse.
Cynthia Coutinho is fiery—not the kind of helpless woman portrayed in old-fashioned detective stories or many fairytales.
Almost two decades ago, she was a critical care registered nurse in Chicago, in the thick of a career and, as she puts it, “at the top of the food chain.” She married a doctor, had children, and turned in her stethoscope to become a stay-at-home mom. She and her family moved to Montana and into a high-end house where she had everything she could need.
But in 2006 she and her husband separated, and the expensive, four-year-long divorce process was brutally challenging. She feared she’d become part of a statistic: A 2009 study from The Institute for Social and Economic Research shows that after a divorce, men’s incomes rise, while women tend to fall into poverty. She was determined not to let that happen.
“Nobody forced me to give up nursing,” says Coutinho. “I felt blessed to stay home with my kids. But my story is so ‘everyman.’ Maybe the amount of money involved is different, but the bones of the story are the same.”
Coutinho’s nursing license had lapsed, and the time that had passed created a wide gap between her skills and what is required in today’s high-tech world.
“I could cook like a dream,” she says.
“I could entertain. But I couldn’t log on to a computer.”
Coutinho was told by the Illinois state board that if she wanted to get her nursing license back, she’d have to take review courses. The closest place she could do that was South Dakota. She’d also have to take the national nurse licensing exams again to regain her credential.
“These exams are what people take just out of school,” says Coutinho. “And my schooling was years in the rearview mirror. So I was really in trouble.”
That’s when Coutinho made a fortuitous call to Missoula College, where she reached Mary Nielsen. Now the Nursing Program director, Nielsen was an adviser at the time, but she looked at Coutinho’s case and decided to find a way to help her.
“She took me under her wing,” Coutinho says. “She called up the state nursing board president and said, ‘This is the kind of nurse we want, so we have to figure this out.’”
Nielsen allowed Coutinho to audit classes at Missoula College to refresh her nursing knowledge. In the meantime, the program was accredited and Nielsen rose from the adviser position to director of the program.
That isn’t the end of the story for Coutinho. In the past three years, after auditing the nursing classes, she earned associate degrees in paralegal studies and in health information technology from Missoula College and is certified in each discipline. The paralegal background helps her see nursing through a legal lens, making her an asset in understanding hospital compliance. In the Health Information Technology Program, she learned about digitizing records, which so many hospitals now are doing.
Having a three-pronged approach to the medical world—nursing, legal, and information technology—has broadened her future and made her a star graduate of Missoula College. Since graduating she has been asked to teach classes in the Health Information Technology Program, and she also has gone in front of the Montana Legislature for funding on behalf of Missoula College. Now a certified emergency nurse at Mineral Community Hospital in Superior, she’s working on her nursing master’s degree through Western Governors University’s online program.
The experiences, Coutinho says, are empowering.
“Definitely [Missoula College] was there for me when I was in an impossible position,” she says. “Quite frankly, I think they go beyond in trying to make their programs doable. Now I feel like I’m on the right path. I feel the wind at my back.”
New Name, Expanded Mission
Missoula’s two-year college got a fresh start recently with the unveiling of its new name: Missoula College University of Montana. Previously called the College of Technology, the school has hurdled several obstacles over the years, including having to educate students in outdated facilities and temporary trailers. When the original building was built on South Avenue in 1968, it accommodated 400 students. In 2002, the school enrolled 930 students, and now it serves approximately 2,500 students.
With growth comes the demand for a facility that meets the needs of Missoula College students and faculty.
Missoula College has expanded to thirty-five programs that lead to highly relevant careers in accounting, computers, culinary arts, energy technology, nursing, and pharmacy, among others. It’s become a resource for an array of Montanans coming from different backgrounds and looking toward a variety of jobs and experiences.
As part of the College!NOW initiative, the Montana University System recently redefined the roles of two-year colleges in Montana, including renaming the five former Colleges of Technology. The Board of Regents identified five essential attributes to be provided at each two-year college, including:
• Transfer education through the associate degree;
• Workforce development, including certificates and associate of applied science degrees;
• Developmental and basic adult education;
• Lifelong learning;
• Community development.
Because of this initiative, the Board of Regents has made it clear that funding a new 120,000-square-foot building on UM's South Campus for Missoula College is a top priority, and the project will be brought before the 2013 Legislature. Construction on the new building would start in March 2014 and finish in July 2016. It will house twenty-two programs of study. Industrial programs such as diesel mechanics will continue to be located at the West Campus near Fort Missoula.
As education in Missoula and elsewhere becomes more integrated, as practical skills and academic learning become more integral to successful careers, Missoula College holds great promise for the Montana University System as a whole. It’s a cost-effective solution, but also one that makes sense for a school that sends students out into the world fully prepared to make an immediate impact.