McKenna Aitchison Takes the Risks, Embraces Change, and Zeros in on Her Dream Career

  • By Ben Hanson
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  • Photography by Chad Sperling
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  • December 15, 2021

SOME OF US ARE PLANNERS. OTHERS ARE RISK-TAKERS. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Some of the best risks are quite well planned. Regardless, the outcome of the plan (or lack thereof) often looks different in reality than on paper… and can lead you down an entirely new journey you never before envisioned.

Such is the case with McKenna Aitchison, a soft-spoken hometown girl who had the courage to take a risk. When opportunity arose, she gambled on herself and is now a year or more ahead of her peers. She discovered a passion she wouldn’t have otherwise and is now racing towards a career she admits had never entered her mind.

The Ideal College Recruit

McKenna had enough on her plate already. She was a three-sport athlete at East Grand Forks Senior High, a stellar student and heavily involved in after school clubs like Family Community Career Leaders of America (FCCLA). She was the captain of her school’s basketball, softball and tennis teams, achieved all-conference recognitions in all three and was the first in school history to make it to the state championships for tennis. She also made it to nationals as a representative of her school’s FCCLA club.

Long story short: she was a standout. Any college admissions department could use McKenna as a template for the ideal recruit. And they’d all be lucky to have her had she not found her home at Northland Community & Technical College.

One of McKenna’s proudest achievements was that trip to the Minnesota state tennis tournament. That in and of itself is a worthy accomplishment, but her relative inexperience with the sport highlights her determination.

“I didn’t join [the tennis team] until my sophomore year,” Mckenna explained in a soft, humble voice that belied her natural determination. “One of my good friends told me I should come try out because I had always been a three-sport athlete. I had been in cross country, and I thought I had more potential than just being a runner, so I figured I might as well just try it. I use that as my motto… it is my big success story, making it to state after joining so late and being the first from my school to make it. It was pretty cool to do that.”

Cool, indeed. It was McKenna’s first taste of great rewards that often come with great risk. She could have opted to stick with what she knew, cross country. She could’ve made the easy choice and finished her high school career still a decorated athlete. Instead, she took the chance, she said yes when opportunity presented itself and a whole new world opened up to her.

Later that same year, the high school guidance counselor paid a visit to her sophomore class, pitching another opportunity. During that presentation, McKenna learned more about a program her older sister had already been participating in — Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO), a program that allows public and nonpublic students to earn college credit while still in high school, through enrollment in and successful completion of college courses at eligible post-secondary institutions.

“When I was a freshman, my sister was a senior and was taking some PSEO classes, so I had heard about the program before,” Mckenna said, “During my sophomore year, our counselor gave us the full rundown on what our post-secondary options were, but it wasn’t until I got to my junior year that I really felt like this would be a good option.”

She started off with intro-level English classes that first semester before quickly realizing what a great opportunity it was to explore some new subjects. After all, it was free and she would be earning college credits that would follow her and her transcript wherever she decided to go next. Once again, McKenna said yes to the challenge.

“After I got more comfortable with how the [PSEO] program worked,” she explained, “I started taking more classes that interested me. Once I got into my senior year, I didn’t need any more high school credits to graduate, so I took most classes on campus at Northland… before I even had to pay for them!”

The Beginning of a Career

Like many Northland students, McKenna isn’t the first generation Pioneer in her family. Her mom is a Northland grad who owns and operates her own physical therapy and athletic training business, and her sister started the PSEO trend a couple of years ahead of McKenna.

“There are only good things said about Northland in our house,” she said. “My sister was also taking classes, so our whole family are alumni.”

It was the family business, though, that inspired McKenna to take on another challenge. While her mom is a pro when it comes to helping her clients achieve their physical mobility goals, her accounting skills leave a little to be desired. McKenna — still a high school student at the time — recognized the opportunity and decided to try some finance classes at Northland.

“Honestly,” McKenna stated, “I took a few classes and found out that I really liked Business… then I took an econ class and figured out that I really liked finance.”

She fell in love with it, as much as one can fall in love with crunching numbers. Moreso, she discovered a skill for finance she didn’t know she had.

“My mom has no background in finance, yet she runs the finances at her business right now,” McKenna said as seriously as a CPA during tax season. “So, I do help her out with that and will go in there and help her with filing and overlook her accounting statements and balance sheets. It’s really opened my eyes that finance is something I’m skilled at.”

Therein lies the reason the PSEO program exists in Minnesota. It gives students like McKenna who have the drive to explore new opportunities the chance to see what the world has to offer.

“The program benefits motivated students and helps students from smaller school districts, perhaps more rural school districts have some opportunities while they’re still in high school, still at home, they wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” explained Brian Huschle, Provost at Northland. “A smaller school doesn’t have the resources to offer all the programs bigger high schools can, so PSEO can kind of bridge that gap. From business courses to psychology courses, it can really help students make better, perhaps more informed career choices.”

McKenna not only got a jumpstart to a future career in finance, but her PSEO experience also helped her map out the steps she’d need to get there… all thanks to her having the courage to say yes to the opportunity.

“Now where I am,” she said with a hint of pride. “My plan after Northland is to transfer to a University and major in finance.”

Comfortable with Community

As a determined self-starter, McKenna also took full advantage of the support systems available to her, both at home with her mom’s business, as well as at Northland. She’s the type of student who would’ve had no trouble jumping right into the mix at a four-year university, but she made a calculated decision to choose Northland as the first stop in her post-secondary journey. It wasn’t necessarily a risk in her mind, but others certainly viewed it as a gamble.

A lot of people would tell me community college isn’t the way to go … I think it’s one of the best options out there, especially if you don’t know what you want to do… go get your generals done for a great price.

McKenna Aitchison ’21, Northland Community & Technical College

“A lot of people would tell me community college isn’t the way to go, but I’m one of the advocates for it,” McKenna said with conviction. “I think it’s one of the best options out there, especially if you don’t know what you want to do… go get your generals done for a great price.”

The price is right, no doubt, and the future finance pro certainly ran the numbers when making her decision. But Northland offers more than a good value, and McKenna chose this community college for the intangible benefits you simply cannot find elsewhere.

“Honestly, I just wanted to stay closer to home,” McKenna said unapologetically. “I also liked the more one-on-one feeling of Northland and really liked how you can go in and feel comfortable even as a high school student. I always felt welcomed by students and professors. I felt like I could talk to my professors and that they actually cared. I didn’t want to be in a lecture class of 150 students and be just a number.”

That’s the refrain you’ll hear from most every Northland student, past and present, young and old alike. One of McKenna’s business instructors, Stephanie LeDuc, explains why so many different types of students are able to thrive at Northland, and it’s all about community.

“It is the welcoming environment,” LeDuc said simply. “Whether you’re a PSEO student or a working adult wanting to return to school, you’re going to find the welcoming and support you need to break down barriers of intimidation that often prevent students from starting, sticking with, or coming back to school.

“The things that make Northland such a good fit are the personal opportunities we provide,” she continued, “things like small classes and the relationships between the instructors and students. McKenna had the gumption to do it all on her own, but she had her Northland family surrounding her, giving her the support she needed to do it all.”

You can’t find that community feeling on most university campuses. And you likely won’t find the support like McKenna found at Northland when it came time to map out her future.

“I have taken advantage of the counselors here for sure,” McKenna said. “They were the ones who helped me weigh the pros and cons of which university to attend after Northland. I was wondering how that transition would work with my credits and the counselors here at Northland motivated me to switch to my double major [Liberal Arts and Business] to increase my options.”

Making the Transfer

In the spring of 2021, McKenna found herself weighing her options of which university was the right fit for her. Never afraid of taking risks, she decided to expand her horizons.

“I considered all of my options, and after COVID hit, and being cooped up and isolated for so long, I decided I needed a change of scenery. I ultimately decided that St. Cloud State was where I wanted to go,” McKenna explained. “I moved to St. Cloud in the fall and am majoring in Finance.”

What does the future look like for this adventurer? McKenna will soon be studying for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) because she has her eyes on Law School following her graduation from St. Cloud State in December of 2022.

The best option as I saw it was to get my generals done in the most efficient and affordable way possible. I am still getting the full university experience–and will earn my bachelor’s degree and hopefully my law degree as I keep reaching for my goals.

McKenna Aitchison ’21, Northland Community & Technical College

“I decided that I could take my education one step further,” explained McKenna. “I’m looking at law schools in Chicago; either the University of Illinois Chicago or Northwestern.”

One always wonders if community college students ever feel like they’re missing out on something bigger… perhaps better. McKenna says no, and in her explanation as to why not, perfectly sums up the full value of two-year colleges like Northland:

“I don’t think I missed out on anything because in the long run, I transferred to a four-year school. The best option as I saw it was to get my generals done in the most efficient and affordable way possible. I am still getting the full university experience–and will earn my bachelor’s degree and hopefully my law degree as I keep reaching for my goals.”

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