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Finding a home: Young professionals welcome opportunities to work in Bemidji

Jordan Baker was happy to find work in Bemidji after graduating with a physics degree from Bemidji State University. Pioneer Photo/Sam Benshoof1 / 4
Stephanie Detschman, a 2009 graduate of BSU, is working several waitressing jobs until she can get a full-time teaching position. Pioneer Photo/Sam Benshoof2 / 4
Alice and Mitch Blessing and their daughter Azalea, 2, moved to Bemidji last October because of the community, friends and family. Pioneer Photo/Sam Benshoof3 / 4
Kandi Jenson, a 2009 graduate of Northwest Technical College, is working with Bi-Cap Head Start. Pioneer Photo/Sam Benshoof4 / 4

Jordan Baker, a 2008 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in physics, found work in his hometown at Bemidji's EXB Solutions.

He is one of several young Bemidjians who are happy to find professional career opportunities in their hometown.

Baker grew up in Bemidji and married his girlfriend, whom he had been dating since high school. They have a son who will be 2 in October.

Baker was open to leaving Bemidji after he graduated. He pointed to Denver, Colo., as an example of a city he had would have considered moving to - a city, Baker said, that offers similar lifestyle opportunities as Bemidji, such as fishing, skiing or hunting. When the position at EXB presented itself only a month and a half after his graduation from Bemidji State University, Baker said he was "pretty excited." The fact that he and his wife could be close to family also played a large factor in his decision to accept the job and stay in the area.

Baker's colleagues at EXB are all fellow 2008 physics majors from BSU. Baker said a firm like EXB that hires students right out of college is rare.

"There's not too much around here that really applies what you've learned," he said. "That's what made this place unique for me."

Seeking talent

Larry Young, Executive Director of the Bemidji-based Joint Economic Development Commission, is actively involved in getting BSU graduates and young talent to settle in the community, and has received a grant from the Neilson Foundation for that very purpose. He pointed to EXB Solutions, a newly opened technology firm that works with embedded computer and control systems involved with aircraft and satellites, as an example of this. The JEDC was active in bringing EXB Solutions to Bemidji, Young said.

Networking helps

Margie Thomas Giauque, Director of BSU Career Services, said that because Bemidji is a smaller community, it is more important for young professionals to effectively network and communicate with employers.

"If they're interested in staying in the area, a big key to their success is who they know in their field," Giauque said.

Giauque pointed to a survey that asked recent BSU seniors whether they wanted to stay in Bemidji following their graduation; more than 40 percent said that they did.

"Is that realistic?" Giauque said. "Even though Bemidji is growing, and jobs are following that growth, can Bemidji support over 300 new graduates settling in the community every year? Because the community is smaller, the competition is keener."

Because of this, BSU students should start thinking about their careers early on, she said. BSU has a four-step process in place that starts in the students' first year. In the second and third year, internships play a large role in getting experience and making contacts, because in a community like Bemidji, Giauque said, a degree alone is not going to get a job.

Interim jobs

Stephanie Detschman, a 2009 graduate of BSU who grew up in Bemidji, is currently working several waitressing jobs until she can get a full-time teaching position.

"I've wanted to be a teacher ever since elementary school," she said.

Detschman said the thought never occurred to her that she would leave Bemidji after college.

"My whole family lives here," she said. "I enjoy the weather. I enjoy the winter. And there's nature right outside your back door."

Detschman said she would prefer to teach elementary school in Bemidji - Central School is at the top of her wish-list, she said - but she understands it may be difficult to get a full-time teaching position immediately out of college. Despite a full 12 months spent student teaching in Fosston last year, Detschman said she recognizes the difficulty of her position.

"I don't know many people who can get teaching jobs right out of college," she said. "You sometimes have to go out of state to get the necessary experience."

Detschman cited several graduates of BSU who left Bemidji to teach in Texas for several years, then returned home and were able to find a job. Detschman said she hopes she'll be able to get similar experience through substitute teaching this fall if she is unable to find a full-time teaching position.

Career beginning

Kandi Jenson, a 2009 graduate of Northwest Technical College, is currently working with Bi-Cap Head Start. A lifetime resident of Bemidji, Jenson said she hopes to become a pre-school teacher in the area, and possibly own her own pre-school in the future.

"I really enjoy what I do," Jenson says. "I wouldn't change it."

Jenson said she was initially open to leaving Bemidji, and going somewhere as far away as Florida to go to college. Eventually, she said, it just made more sense to stay in Bemidji and go to school at NTC.

In 2006, Jenson's son Axten was born, weighing only one pound. Her doctors were not optimistic about her son's chances, Jenson said. While she was still in the hospital, Jenson's mother and family friends put together a benefit to raise funds to help the family. Grocery stores throughout town donated food supplies, and in the end, more than $6,000 had been raised.

Even after the benefit, people she didn't know continued to bring toys, blankets and clothes to their home.

"It was really amazing," Jenson remarked. "It just helped knowing that people cared. I never expected anything like that."

Now 3 years old, Axten, who has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and is developmentally delayed, "gets better every day," Jenson said, pointing to the various support services in town as playing a large role in that improvement.

"Those services in town just picked me up and said, 'This is what we can do for him,'" she said. "I think it's important in a community that people know you. Thanks to Axten, people know me now. They know him. They still come up to me and ask how he's doing, how we're doing. I really like that people in the community are personal like that. I know it's made a lot of difference for me."

Disappointing news

Mitch Blessing, another BSU graduate, had hoped to return to BSU in a different fashion - as a teacher.

Blessing and his wife, Alice, like many other young professionals who grew up or went to school in the area, hoped to settle down full time in the city that they know so well.

However, in the past few weeks, Mitch received a rejection letter from BSU regarding the sculpture position he had wanted, and will now start applying to other universities outside of Minnesota.

"This may mean another move for us not too far down the road," Alice said. "It's disappointing that it didn't work out with BSU, with Mitch being an alum and a great teacher. It would be sad to leave Bemidji, but we believe that everything happens for a reason."

Mitch, a 2004 graduate of BSU, grew up in Bemidji, and Alice, a 2003 graduate from New York Mills, Minn., returned to Bemidji last October with their now 2-year-old daughter after spending several years out of state. Following a brief stint in Florida where Mitch studied sculpture at the University of Miami, the couple returned to Minnesota hoping to be able to find full-time work in Bemidji.

The Blessings chose to move back to Bemidji in large part, Mitch said, because of the community of the area. Between friends and family who live nearby, he said, "There's really a large community of people here we know and love."

Mitch pointed to the three generations of family in the area as a reason why Bemidji is a good place for their daughter to grow up.

"Bemidji is an energetic place," Alice said. "There's art, and there's a lot of culture. It's a good place to live."

Since moving back to Bemidji last October, Mitch has been doing various carpentry jobs while applying to local colleges, hoping to find a job teaching sculpture. Ideally, Mitch said, he would like a job teaching sculpture at BSU.

"To get a job like that in my hometown," Mitch said. "It'd be nice to do it here."

Alice, meanwhile, has received commissions to paint portraits around the area, and is busy preparing an exhibit for the Wild Hare Bistro and Coffee House in December. Alice has received grant money from the Regional 2 Arts Council to help her with the exhibit.

Attractive area

What Bemidji has done well in the past decade, Young said, is build a community where young professionals such as the Blessings, Jenson, Detschman and Baker want to live. Young pointed to the strong telecommunication base and the development of technology throughout the area, but also acknowledged the large role that education plays in the community.

"BSU and Northwest Tech will be important going forward," he said.

The lifestyle of Bemidji is also important, Young said. The outdoor opportunities that the Bemidji area presents are a large draw for many people moving here. Young believes that Bemidji will need to continue to emphasize the quality of life in the area to continue to draw young people back to the city where they studied or grew up.

Sam Benshoof grew up in Bemidji and graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. He will spend the coming school year in Macedonia on a Fulbright U.S. Student Scholarship.