Looking where she stands today, it's hard not to marvel how far Jawaher Binhamoodah has come.
Today, the 32-year-old Rochester resident is a newly minted registered nurse at Mayo Clinic, financially stable and, for the first time in her life, on an upwardly mobile path.
What a difference a few years can make. Binhamoodah, a Somalian/Yemeni immigrant, was once a cash-strapped newcomer to Rochester, working two jobs and struggling to learn a new language.
"I didn't have any resources," Binhamoodah said about her move to Rochester in 2014. "I didn't know where to start. I didn't know anything."
Beyond her own grit and determination, Binhamoodah credits a program called Bridges to Healthcare with help in guiding and redirecting her life.
A collaboration between the Hawthorne Center, Workforce Development, Inc., and Rochester Community and Technical College, the program pairs students with a career counselor called a "navigator" who helps steer the student around obstacles.
For the financially stressed, it might be tuition assistance. For the academically struggling, it could be tutoring help. For a person with car problems, it might be a bus pass.
Since the program was started in 2013, 552 graduates have found work in health care fields, 40 percent at Mayo Clinic. Eighty percent of the graduates hired at Mayo are from racially or ethnically diverse populations. Graduates have found work as home health aides, nurses, phlebotomists, patient care associates and hemodialysis technicians.
The program would undergo its first major expansion to other parts of Southern Minnesota under a legislative proposal in St. Paul.
Riverland Community College is seeking start-up funds to create its own program at its campuses in Austin, Albert Lea and Owatonna. But the program, officials say, would be re-invented and scaled to meet the area's own economic needs, with a focus on manufacturing as well as health care..
"We're trying to reach out to broader network of businesses to help us," said Barbara Embacher, Riverland's vice president for academic and student affairs. "But we're not just going to focus on health care. We want to do this in manufacturing areas as well."
Funding for the Rochester program comes from both public and private sources. An annual $250,000 appropriation from the Legislature has funded Bridges for each of the last four years, according to state Rep. Liz Bolden, a Rochester legislator who is carrying the legislation in the House.
Mayo Clinic contributes $120,000 a year, and another $100,000 comes from a Bremer Foundation grant.
The Rochester program serves more than 70 students a year, Boldon said, and an expansion to Riverland's three campuses could bring as many as 60 additional students.
Embacher said Riverland hasn't yet sought a financial commitment from private employers, because "we need to know if we have the state funds to get this off the ground."
Officials are seeking $475,000 from the Legislature for an expanded program to include Riverland, Embacher said. The House bill provides $475,000 a year, but the money would be doled out on competitive grant basis among programs. The Senate legislation seeks $300,000 for an expanded Bridges program.
Jinny Rietman, executive director of Workforce Development, Inc., said officials have received encouragement from legislators to expand the nationally recognized program to other parts of the state. "If this program is so successful, why aren't we doing it everywhere," legislators have reportedly said.
Supporters say the program works because it taps and develops workforce potential that otherwise might not be realized but for the program. And it matches them to employers and organizations that are desperate for workers.
"This is a program that has a track record and proven success," Boldon said.
Binhamoodah said when she started taking adult basic education classes at Hawthorne, she didn't have the financial means to go full-time. Her goal was to take a class at a time to improve her English.
"I'd been out of school for too long. And I graduated in a different language," said Binhamoodah, who speaks Arabic and graduated from a Kuwaiti high school.
She was also working two jobs. When she entered the Bridges program, she got help from a financial counselor on how to budget and save money for tuition. Later, when she made the transition from Hawthorne to Rochester Community and Technical College, she felt overwhelmed emotionally and financially.
"All I see is like high school kids. I'm like, 'OK, I think I'm too old for this," Binhamoodah, who was then in her late 20s, recalled.
The Bridges program helped temper the stress by paying her tuition at a certain point. For Binhamoodah, the financial help was a big deal. It allowed her to simplify her life by working one job instead of two and to focus on her academics.
"The funding was a big deal for me," she said. "They're like, 'OK, just pick one job and focus on school.' That was a huge encouragement for me to do better."
Her happiest moment, she said, was being accepted into RCTC's nursing program.
"I told myself, 'I'm not going to get in.' But then I saw the letter come into the mail and saw 'congratulations' in the first sentence," Binhamoodah said. "I think that was the happiest day."
She began working in the cardiac surgery floor at Mayo earlier this year after graduating from the nursing program.
"It's been a wonderful journey," she said.