Column #196. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Nov 4, 2023 and in print Nov 5
In her poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” The question for many of us gets asked periodically during a lifetime – there are many “whats” we plan to do – but it’s one with special force when you’re in high school.
On Oct. 27, EPIC — Exploring Potential Interests and Careers — happened for 4,500 students from 29 Central Minnesota school districts. With positive stories in short supply these days, I was enormously encouraged to attend this event, hosted by St. Cloud Technical & Community College. I talked with students and presenters, and heard about how EPIC came to be in 2018 and has grown exponentially, even with the COVID interruption.
The basics: EPIC (epic-mn.com) is a community collaboration that provides accessible, engaging, hands-on experiences, empowering people to discover and navigate career pathways. More than a hundred local companies in clusters of fields — Arts, Communication; IT; Health; Agriculture/Food; Education/Training; Government, Public Affairs, Human Services; Public Safety/Law; Finance/Business Management; Entrepreneur; Marketing; Hospitality/Tourism; Transportation; Construction; Manufacturing — set up displays but, more important, actual experiences of their work (for example, welding, or cleaning water to find bacteria, or driving an excavator with your phone, or making your own DNA helix, or— you name it). It is explicitly not a job fair; the participating companies are forbidden to hand out business cards.
As Emily Davis, the recently appointed EPIC Coordinator, told me, “The students don’t know about what they don’t know. At this event they may experience first-hand something they’d never thought about, and think, ‘I might like that!’ or ‘No way would I ever want to do that!’ It’s all about potential, exploring where interests and careers might coincide.” And if something catches fire, the consequence could be, “How might planning to do this with my one wild and precious life affect what I study in high school — and how I study it — and then maybe (or maybe not) post-secondary schooling?”
I heard this from students. Shelby Nelson and Isabella Rudolph, juniors at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School, told me that it’s easy to think “there’s lots of time — but there isn’t. However, there is still time to explore; you don’t have to choose yet.” And they are spearheading an effort in their district to start EPIC in middle school by encouraging students — including, in Rudolph’s case, her eighth-grade brother — to make use of ExPerIenCe Career Kits, which make career exploration portable: Businesses design experiential activities that students can check out from the St. Cloud Great River Regional Library to learn about industries, jobs, and the skills needed for specific careers. Again: This has nothing to do with deciding; it’s all about exploring.
Gavin Barber, Carson Reger, and Deon Pierce, sophomores at St. Cloud Apollo High School, told me that they had tried out welding, something they’d never thought about, and figured that it could be something they’d want to do — a possibility that certainly surprised them.
I watched Ryan Sprenger and Braydon Schneider, sophomores at Sartell-St. Stephen High School, experiment with water treatment. They told me they already knew a little bit about pH levels as measures of acidity, but the sophistication of measurement tools, such as the spectrophotometer and turbidity meter, was new to them. Gregg Kropp, Water Environment Technologies Instructor at SCTCC, who was helping oversee the Natural Resources site, told me that water treatment professionals are in great demand (it’s the one official that every city in the state is required to have), but people hear about it only when something goes bad.
Both Kropp and Ryan Thomas, of Geocomm, in the Information Technology section, told me that not only do the students learn, but the presenters also get to experiment with how to talk about what they do. “It’s a style-shift for each student,” Thomas said. “When a kid says, ‘What you do is too hard,’ I shift focus and say, ‘I’ll bet you are good at gaming, so you could be a tester for us; we don’t need only builders.’”
The memory that will stay longest with me is of Salmo Abdi, Nimo Mahamud, Bisharo Muhumed, and Fatuma Hussein, sophomores at St. Cloud Tech High School, at the Bitstream Digital Media site, standing in front of the green screen and experimenting with being weather reporters. Now they understand why the reporter isn’t looking at the map we see. They had also been at the dentist and business management stations. What they appreciated most about the whole event: “People came together today — the diversity of students!”
EPIC — visit the website! — demonstrates collective impact in our region and makes our vibrant economy real and visible for our young people. Right here is a plausible arena for their one wild and precious life.