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May 4—Mary Millican was trying to find her path in life after graduating from high school in Spring Creek, Nevada.
A native of the mining community with a population of about 13,000, Millican was looking for a chance to do something different with her life. And after a stop at a four-year university and a community college, she finally settled into an educational experience that was for her — at Mitchell Technical College, where she will graduate Friday, May 7 at 11 a.m. at the Corn Palace. Two additional MTC graduation ceremonies will be held at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to accommodate social distancing requirements.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do after high school. High school students are pressured to go to college, so I did attend the University of Nevada, but I dropped out after one semester," Millican told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. "So I went to the community college there, and I dropped out after the first semester."
What could have been a discouraging experience in post-secondary education eventually led her to South Dakota, where she found a school and program that seemed to be built around her own interests. The school programs at Mitchell Technical College were hands-on, the teachers and staff took a real interest in her and her fellow students and the price was more affordable than other schools.
"I just didn't like the (four-year) university, the teachers and how many kids there were. It wasn't hands-on. It was terrible for me, I didn't enjoy one bit of it," Millican said.
She had pondered studying powerline construction and maintenance, and found a program that suited her in Mitchell. She knew virtually nothing about South Dakota, with the exception of Mount Rushmore. But she went out on a limb and did her research and moved here with a little help from her family.
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She immediately noted the difference between Mitchell Tech and the schools she had attended previously. The community was a familiar size to her hometown, and it turned out to be a well-rounded college town, she said.
Now wrapping up her time in the powerline program, Millican said studying the subject has been a welcome change from the mining-centric focus she grew up in.
"I come from a mining town, and my family is all in mining, and it kind of sucks getting up at 3 a.m. and getting home at 9 p.m. every day," Millican said. "I didn't really want to do that. And I'm an adrenaline junky. I love climbing and working with my hands. So (the powerline program) it was."
She took to it immediately upon arrival. While she is one of the only women in her class, she has worked hard and proven herself in what is often seen to be a man's profession. When it comes to racing to the top, she has shown she can meet the times of her male classmates. And at only 5-foot 4-inches tall, she takes pride in being able to reach the top of a pole in short order.
Her studies have gotten her recognition far beyond the Mitchell Tech campus. She is a recipient of a Mike Rowe Scholarship, which is open to students entering their second year at one of the four South Dakota technical colleges. The scholarship is funded by the Mike Rowe Works Foundation and matched by the South Dakota Future Fund. The scholarship was created by Rowe, who created the program "Dirty Jobs" and serves as the CEO of the foundation, after he visited South Dakota in 2018 on a tour of technical schools and businesses.
She was surprised to receive the scholarship after applying, but was thrilled when she was approved. Not long after, a suggestion from her grandmother led her to create a Tik Tok video about her experience in the program. That video currently has 1.5 million views, and it has been seen by many women and men, both of which are inspired by her path and reach out to her for advice.
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"I started a Tik Tok. Well I didn't mean to. My grandma made me make one about the Mike Rowe scholarship and then a million people saw it, so now I've been making more videos, and I've been influencing a lot of other women," Millican said.
It's a long way from where she started out in Nevada. She is due to graduate on Friday, and while she is considering entering the workforce with her new skills, she has enjoyed the Mitchell Tech experience enough to consider coming back for additional education as a GPS technician. At 20 years old, she still has time to decide on what she wants to focus as a career.
"I'm still a little on the fence about everything, so I might come back for GPS, or I might stay working, but I'm leaning toward coming back here," Millican said.
For those who have sought her out for her advice on her education, Millican has urged potential students who may feel they don't fit the traditional four-year college plan to consider a technical school. It was a night and day different for her, and she knows a similar decision could benefit many high school students who may be looking for their own future career.
"I would start out with a technical school or a community college first. Don't start out with a four-year college unless you want to be a doctor or lawyer or something like that," Millican said. "Tech school is definitely the way to go, at least at first until you figure out what you want to do."