June A Nelson

The late June A. Nelson founded the Nelson Scholarship for Women with her daughter, Melanie, back in 2015. Through this fund, the Owatonna Foundation now offers two $1,500 grants annually for women pursuing an education in a nontraditional field. (Press file photo) 

OWATONNA — Students pursuing a technical or nontraditional college path have until Oct. 25 to apply for the upcoming round of Owatonna Foundation post-secondary scholarships.

The nonprofit is offering two different types of award, one for residents pursuing a technical degree, and one for women who are going to school for a “nontraditional” major.

To qualify for the technical education scholarship, students must have graduated from high school or received their GED and must be attending a non-four-year program at a technical or community college. Residents who plan to enroll at a school this spring are also eligible.

Further, in order to receive any foundation scholarship, recipients must have an Owatonna mailing address or have worked for two years at an Owatonna business.

When evaluating scholarship applications, Owatonna Foundation Executive Director Laura Resler encourages all types of students to apply and says the foundation takes on-the-job experience and extracurricular activities seriously.

“Some students may not excel scholastically, but they’re holding a job and have excellent references,” she said. “We have a scholarship committee that meets and we look at their GPA, their essay, their extracurricular activities and the letter of recommendation that we receive. So it’s a pretty broad-spectrum analysis.”

While the money for the technical scholarship comes out of the foundation’s general fund, the Nelson Scholarship for Women is made possible year after year by a grant from Melanie Nelson and her late mother, June.

Nelson is a former Owatonna resident, who ran Learning ZoneXpress for decades before moving on last summer. After teaching at Owatonna Middle School, Nelson founded Learning Zone to create posters and other educational materials focused on healthy eating and childhood literacy, among other topics.

Both Melanie and June’s passion for education led them to found the scholarship in 2015, a year before June died. Now, the family’s grant awards two $1,500 scholarships per year to women getting an education in a nontraditional field.

This parameter, set by the Nelsons, can include careers in everything from architecture to firefighting to electrical and maintenance work. While it used to be that no student could receive the award more than once, that requirement has changed and past recipients can now reapply for both the Nelson and technical scholarships.

Each award has two annual deadlines, in the fall and spring, with one Nelson award and $15,000 in technical scholarships available for the upcoming application cycle. Overall, the foundation has set aside $30,000 this year for post-secondary scholarships.

The foundation’s award program fits into a larger local trend, highlighting technical careers and hoping to encourage students to get an education and stay in the region. The Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce has also focused on workforce development efforts in recent years, saying on its website that Steele County has one of the highest concentrations of manufacturing jobs in the state.

In partnership with Junior Achievement, United Way and the school district, the chamber recently helped form a coalition called Steele Co. Works, which focuses on workforce development for local students. Recently, the coalition hosted an arts and communication-focused career day, introducing students to Owatonna businesses and highlighting area opportunities.

“Right now with the industry and the shortage of workers, it’s a really good niche for us to fill,” said Resler of the foundation’s work. “We want to see these students succeed, have opportunities in the future and be able to come back to our community and contribute to the workforce.”

In recent years, the majority of technical scholarship recipients have been attending school nearby, in particular at Riverland Community College.

However, some students are also enrolled further afield. This past spring’s Nelson Scholarship recipient attends a four-year program at the University of Minnesota; other recipients have attended Alexandria Community and Technical College and St. Paul College, among others.

There is no set award amount for applicants pursuing technical degrees; each individual grant is based on the student’s application. Resler says in her time at the foundation, she’s seen anywhere from three to 12 applicants per cycle.

“We’ll see anywhere from half a dozen to about a dozen, and we would love to see more,” she notes.

For additional information, or to complete an application, visit www.owatonnafoundation.org. Applications are also available at the foundation’s office, 108 West Park Square in Owatonna.

Reach Reporter Bridget Kranz at 507-444-2376.

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