Minnesota Department of Education Assistant Commissioner Elia Dimayuga-Bruggeman stood before a crowd of St. Michael-Albertville Middle School East and West students last week and asked, "What is your dream?"
"We all have dreams in here," she said. "We all want to become someone."
Preparing for these dreams can start during the transition from middle school to high school, in choosing appropriate classes, getting involved in the community, and using school resources to stay on track. Often, a student's future is fulfilled by pursuing higher education, and the planning starts early, she said.
Dimayuga-Bruggeman and others at the MDE's "Your Choice, Your Future" event on Thursday expressed their support of students, and offered them advice on how to be successful. MDE leaders traveled to four districts around the state to encourage higher education — STMA was one of their stops.
Also speaking at the event were University of Minnesota -Twin Cities Freshman Admissions Counselor Kablia Thao, STMA Middle School West Principal Andy Merfeld, and St. Michael-Albertville High School Principal Bob Driver.
Dimayuga-Bruggeman shared her personal educational journey with STMA — she was born in Mexico and went from working in the corn fields to having more than 25 years experience in the field of education — teaching at public schools, becoming a college professor, and now, a leader at MDE.
"I didn't want to pick up rocks and clean corn all my life," she said. "I wanted to get ahead and prepare myself to go to college...as I look at myself, when I was your age, I had goals, and I also had a dream to be a teacher."
Choosing challenging advanced core classes as well as college-preparatory electives in high school, building a good grade-point average, volunteering and doing extracurricular activities are all important to prioritize at this point in STMA middle schoolers' lives, she said.
Soft skills are also important — showing respect and being on time, Dimayuga-Bruggeman said.
"This will carry over with you as you go to college," she said. "One of the things that employers tell us is soft skills are very important."
By 2018, approximately 70 percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require some form of higher education, "making it even more critical for students to possess the tools necessary to succeed in college and their career," according to an information release from MDE.
"You are an asset, you are our future — we're depending on you," Dimayuga-Bruggeman said to students. "Everyone has dreams, but they won't become real if you don't put in hard work."
Thao also shared her story and offered advice — she works to counsel incoming prospective students at the the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities, where she also went to college and graduated with a degree in journalism strategic communications. She volunteered with Ameri-Corps for two years as an America Literacy Coordinator.
STMA students listened attentively as she talked about her childhood in Montana and her high school education in Minnesota. As a first-generation Hmong-American, one of her biggest influences was her grandfather — who never had the opportunity to go to school, she said.
"He never spent a day in the classroom, could never recite the ABCs, but he would tell me how important education was, because he never had the opportunity to educate himself," Thao said.
College offers a "level of independence you'll never get in your life again," and allows students to learn what they are good at, she said.
"College taught me how to be passionate," she said. "I truly believe that passion is such a strong love you have for something that you feel no sense of burden or time."
She encouraged students to challenge themselves, try new things, and above all, believe in themselves.
"Trust in yourselves wholeheartedly," she said. "Just because someone doesn't believe you can be a dancer or an athlete, doesn't mean it can't happen."
Also emphasized at the event was the support teachers and school staff at STMA offer to students throughout their secondary education.
"We have all sorts of people and places to help you as you move along in your journey," Driver said of the high school and district, announcing that the STMA district was recently named a Red Quill school district by the ACT — meaning that it does an outstanding job preparing students for the college entrance exam.
After students played a jeopardy game about preparing for college and beyond, Driver reminded students what it means to carry soft skills to high school.
"It means you're maturing and you're able to have a conversation with adults in being able to advocate for yourself — and you have a positive attitude," he said. "Continue to bring the great, positive attitude you bring every day."