Investing in education
Tom Rukavina receives much-deserved honor for his work

Tom Rukavina, a fierce champion for both higher education and strengthening the Range’s economy, saw his efforts pay off last week with the dedication of the Tom Rukavina Engineering Center at Mesabi Range College.

The former Virginia lawmaker played a key role in securing $2 million in annual funding from taconite production taxes that are earmarked for higher education on the Iron Range and helped establish the Iron Range Engineering program back in January 2010. Rukavina chaired the Iron Range Higher Education Committee, which was created by the Legislature to advise the commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board on providing higher education programs in the taconite assistance area.

His efforts were also aided by a shift in the political winds that resulted in DFL majorities in both the House and Senate. The DFL has invested heavily in education after dramatic cuts to public education under Republican leadership in the House and Senate.

The Iron Range Engineering program focuses on a project-based teaching method that pairs students with industry in their region for the third and fourth year of engineering education. It not only gives students practical experience, but also opens the doorway to local jobs that will help build the area’s economy.

In addition, Iron Range Engineering won accreditation last year, which was retroactively applied to all graduates. Accreditation is a key factor for students seeking licensure as a professional engineer.

Prior to the launch of the Iron Range Engineering program, only two-year degrees in engineering had been available locally through programming at Itasca Community College.

The Iron Range Engineering program is the first of its kind in Minnesota and one of a handful of such educational opportunities in the nation. It’s the mix of both classroom and real-world application of engineering that makes it unique.

Besides expanding academic opportunities on the Range, the program helps prevent the “brain drain” that has afflicted the area’s economy with some of the region’s most promising graduates forced to find work outside the region. Iron Range Engineering, through its project-based approach, introduces students to economic opportunities on the Range and better prepares them for the shift from college to the workplace. To date, 50 students have graduated from the IRE program, 49 of whom have been placed in engineering jobs. Two-thirds of the students who completed the program have remained in the region.

The need for such a program is clear. It is estimated that within the next ten years, northeastern Minnesota will need 200 to 300 new engineers to replace retirees at existing companies and work at $6.4 billion in new large-scale economic development projects under consideration or planned.

Sue Collins, president of the Northeast Higher Education District, and Ron Ulseth, program director for Iron Range Engineering, both credited the program’s creation primarily to the efforts of Rukavina.

At Friday’s dedication ceremony, Collins described Rukavina as “someone who cares deeply about students, about education and about this region.”

Ulseth shared her view. Although Iron Range Engineering happened as a result of the dedication of hundreds of folk, Ulseth said, “it really wouldn’t have happened without one person — Tom Rukavina.”

We concur. While many others also helped make this program a reality, Rukavina served as the spark plug that fired up the engine and deserves recognition for his vision, leadership and persistence in making this program happen.

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