Opportunity in the land of brain drain

February 2, 2018

It’s a plotline many are familiar with: a parent or parents living in rural communities push themselves to the limit, working hard to make a better life for their children — often juggling more than one job. The children grow up, go to a four-year school, just as their parents always dreamed for them. They take a job far from the small town they most likely grew up in, making a life all their own, away from the rural community they came from. We’ve heard the story; we know the drill.


Small, rural areas are feeling the pinch of aging populations and under-qualified employees. In December 2017, the East Central Regional Development Commission, which serves Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs and Pine Counties, released a survey of local business. The survey was completed online by 106 entrepreneurs in the five-county region.


The survey found, though predominantly reporting “stable and growing economic conditions and a positive outlook for the future,” respondents are concerned with finding qualified employees. Some respondents cited lack of education, technical skills and experience. Others mentioned characteristics harder to teach: work ethic and motivation.


It’s a concern that could be characterized as “brain drain,” which describes the movement of educated, skilled workers/tax payers from, in this case, particular counties.


In 2013, the state demographer found that 18 percent of Pine County residents were 54 years and older. By 2025, that percent is projected to rise to 26.4 percent. Pine County’s Comprehensive Plan for 2017 to 2030 states that only 13.5 percent of citizens here 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 32.6 percent of residents throughout the state.


While online courses are becoming increasingly popular and accessible, it’s not an option for many in rural areas, as internet access is limited. Students coming out of high school, too, are often intimidated by the cost of higher education and don’t fully know their options upon graduation from high school.


Changing the narrative


Statistics may appear bleak, but, fortunately, statistics can’t tell the whole story.


Lauralynne Nissen, currently a student a Mora High School, is defying the statistics. She’s been offered a $180,000 scholarship Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps, Marine Option, from Robert E. Dzvonick, Executive Officer, Marine Corps Recruiting Station Twin Cities.


It’s been quite the road for Nissen, and the award of the scholarship marks a great accomplishment and the next step towards her future.


Due to her father’s work, Nissen and her two older siblings grew up in a variety of places, from Washington, D.C. to Mexico City, Mexico.


Having known she wanted to join the military from an early stage, Nissen was looking for a program that would help her prepare for service.


Options are limited in rural Minnesota. Initially, she was looking for a Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) program, like one her brother participated in. As there isn’t a JROTC in the Mora area, Nissen did some research and found the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets. She joined the Polaris Battalion based out of Cambridge.


The Sea Cadets is a similar program to JROTC. One weekend a month, cadets participate in mandatory drill. The weekends are divided between personal training and specialty classes, which include classes on aviation, space, medical, law enforcement, photography and more.


Participants in the corps do not have to continue with any branch of the military upon their graduation from Sea Cadets, though their time with the Sea Cadets could start them out on a higher pay grade if they do enlist. Enlistment aside, Sea Cadets seeks to instill military leadership, skills and discipline — useful development for any walk of life.


Nissen isn’t looking to enlist. Instead, she is working hard to be commissioned as an officer into the Marines. She said she is “full-blown Marines. I’m not going to settle for anything less.”


Her determination and hard work shine through her dedication to Sea Cadets, her school and extracurricular activities.


She is a junior at Mora High School, which is her eleventh school. There she has earned high academic honors and participates as an athlete. She is a head coach in Cambridge for a boys’ soccer team.


Because Nissen plans to be commissioned into the Marines, she wants to attend a service academy. While she could attend a university with a ROTC program to achieve essentially the same end result, she wants to be as close to the military as possible while still attending college. Attending a service academy would keep her in the rhythm of a military life while allowing her to also continue her academic education.


Acceptance into the Naval Academy or the Merchant Marine Academy is not as straightforward as sending in an application with a personal essay for a state school. Nissen must also garner a nomination from Minnesota state Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, as well as Congressman Nolan. The representatives give out up to five nominations, and Nissen hopes to be counted among them. Those nominations usually come out towards the end of January, she said.


Even after a nomination, Nissen added, the school must still accept you. A nomination does not always translate to enrollment.


So she brainstormed a back-up plan. The NROTC scholarship. NROTC stands for Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, and the selected recipients of the scholarship receive full tuition, books stipend, educational fees and other financial benefits. Upon graduation, recipients are commissioned as officers into either the Navy or Marine Corps.


The NROTC looks at the whole person, Nissen said. Areas of academics, physical fitness and aptitude are considered. A day before Nissen’s fitness tests, she got off crutches after having fractured her tibia. She admitted that her fitness scores suffered for it, but that’s where her captain stepped in.


Each applicant works with a captain, who meets with the selection board, advocating on the applicant’s behalf. Nissen shared that less than 10 percent of applicants receive the scholarship of $180,000, but she didn’t feel as nervous about her application for the NROTC scholarship as she does about her applications for the military academies.


“I think I felt more confident because of my captain,” she said, referring to Captain Robert E. Dzvonick. He explained to the selection board about her fractured tibia and made way for her academic and aptitude accomplishments to speak for themselves.



She was awarded the $180,000 scholarship on January 13 at the Braham Event Center during the United States Navy Sea Cadet Corps 2018 Military Ball. “I have not yet accepted it,” Nissen said. Her Plan A is to attend the Naval Academy or Merchant Marine Academy — that’s the dream. Plan B is accepting the scholarship and selecting a school compatible with the scholarship. She’s still anxious about acceptance to the academies.


But her father, Chris, chimed in. Receiving the NROTC scholarship is likened to being accepted to an Ivy League School. She’s already achieved that — the Naval Academy should be “no problem.”


“I don’t if I believe that,” Nissen responded with a wry smile.


After nominations from the congresspeople come out, the Naval Academy will make its decision in March.


Finding other options


Chris Nissen, Lauralynne’s father, said that military isn’t always the right choice for any given person. Two of the Nissen’s children decided to pursue that route — their son enlisted in the Marines — but their oldest daughter chose a different route. She received a full scholarship from the government of China, where she now works and studies.


In his retirement, Mr. Nissen has taken up subbing in the Mora school district, where he’s interacted with a number of intelligent and gifted seniors who have no clue what’s next after high school. Many of them don’t realize the options they have.


Without border-to-border high-speed internet, Nissen said, how can young people and their parents or guardians research possible options for their future? While there are a number of free or reduced trades certifications available through the U.S. Job Corps and many reasonably priced tech or vocational school options, high school students often don’t know of these alternatives to a four-year school or entering the workforce without helpful skills.


The Nissen’s story is “unique,” he said. They want to use it to encourage others who maybe feel stuck or aren’t sure of the resources available to them.


“The higher goals you set, the more you achieve,” Lauralynne added. There are two rounds of the selection board for the NROTC scholarship, and she encouraged anyone who’s interested to enter into the application process.


It’s a time commitment, but “the reward is worth someone’s time. … There’s no harm in applying for it.”


If more young people take advantage of the resources being offered, perhaps “brain drain” can be turned to “brain gain” in local areas. The Nissen’s set up an email account for inquiries about combating brain drain with brain gain or questions about resources they’ve discovered along their journey. If you wish to contact them, write to braingainmn@yahoo.com.

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