Ridgewater College’s RITA Grant to Receive New Innovative Program in Equity and Inclusion Award

HUTCHINSON AND WILLMAR, MINN.  (February 23, 2017) -- Ridgewater College’s Rural Information Technology Alliance (RITA) grant team will receive the New Innovative Program in Equity and Inclusion Award at Minnesota State Colleges’ annual conference on Feb., 23.  The award honors the work of college and university teams for innovative work in addressing issues of equity and inclusion. 

Funded by the Department of Labor, the $18 million RITA grant supported Ridgewater and three partner colleges in building multifaceted approaches to developing the information technology workforce in rural areas.  Led by RITA Grant Manager, Larry Handlin, the RITA team at Ridgewater established new approaches to outreach, recruitment and student service. 

Based on a fundamental understanding of the challenges immigrant communities and first-generation students face when accessing college training options, Handlin’s team flipped the traditional on-campus information session model.  Instead of inviting interested students to campus, grant staff fostered relationships with local businesses and community groups, and brought the information sessions to the community.  From Women’s groups, to Somali cafes, to Mexican restaurants, to Micronesian Meetups, RITA staff connected directly with underserved community groups.

“Ridgewater serves diverse communities and we found that by taking an active approach to building relationships with those communities, we were able to remove barriers and ultimately help more students get connected with quality education,” states Handlin.

Ridgewater’s RITA team, which along with Handlin included Andrea Moore, Erika Obregon, Nathan Erickson, Robin Fisher and Ben Larson, combined their inclusive outreach efforts with a wrap-around student advising model that set students up for success, enhanced connections between the college and local tech employers, and advanced new approaches to serving students.  “We try to know every student by name and by story” is the mantra often repeated by Handlin and his team. 

In addition to reaching new groups locally, RITA staff fostered an unmistakable sense of community among the students they served.  By regularly combining gaming events with food and presentations by local tech employers, as well as by facilitating field trips to tech events and IT employers and actively supporting the students’ CST Club, grant staff provided opportunities for students to gain a sense of comradery with their classmates and instructors. 

The innovative approaches taken by Handlin and his team underscore important aspects of the current state of higher education access, outreach and student support.  Whether rural or metro-based, the communities served by state colleges are becoming increasingly diverse.  In recognition of this shift, Minnesota State Colleges called addressing racial and economic disparities one of the biggest challenges confronting the future economic vitality of Minnesota. 

Ridgewater College President, Douglas Allen, pointed to the success of this initiative and the impact on both the communities served and the college.  “It is my belief that the inclusive outreach and community building model established by Ridgewater’s RITA team is an approach that systematically reduces barriers for many of our students who never thought college was possible,” says Allen.   

Both innovative and inclusive, the approach taken by the RITA team at Ridgewater exemplifies the college’s ideals.  Allen states, “The award is a great recognition of the RITA team’s work and commitment to inclusion--a key component of serving all of our students.”

For more information, contact Larry Handlin at larry.handlin@ridgewater.edu