Off to a dream job at Mayo Clinic, Northland grad Kat Willems leaves behind a legacy of obstacles overcome
- By Ben Hanson
- Photography by Chad Sperling
- May 25, 2019
WHEN HER PHONE RANG AS SHE SAT WITH HER MOM IN THE CLINIC’S WAITING ROOM, Katherine (Kat) Willems looked at the unknown number on the caller I.D. and did what most of us are now trained to do… ignore it. She assumed it was yet another robocall. But when the voicemail notification popped up, she decided to take a listen.
“My jaw dropped,” Kat said, recalling the moment she heard the message.
Less than three hours prior, Kat was sitting in a quiet room set up for her by the Academic Success Center at Northland Community and Technical College interviewing for her dream job — Surgical Technician at the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
If you had asked her, it was a long shot at best. Kat shares the common Midwestern skill of selling herself short. But after years of overcoming seemingly every obstacle life could possibly throw at her, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, earning the praise and support of every Northland instructor and staff member that crossed her path… that voicemail was complete vindication.
“They called me two-and-a-half hours after the interview and offered me the job,” Kat said with a mixture of relief and disbelief. “My mom looked at me with a ‘What’s wrong?’ look, so I replayed the message for her, and we both got tears in our eyes. Even the lady sitting across from us got up, walked over and said congrats on the job.”
Congratulations, indeed. But such a dream-like outcome couldn’t have been earned by a more worthy Northland grad.
Challenge After Challenge
Listening to Kat share the finer details of her life — specifically the past 10 years — you immediately understand why she approached that interview with Mayo with restrained optimism. To put it bluntly, life had been handing her one batch of lemons after another, and it all started with her initial attempt to become the first college grad in her family.
“Right out of high school, I went to Providence College in Manitoba, Canada,” said the Warroad, Minn. native. “Originally, I went for theater and psychology, as I wanted to be a counselor, but I failed out. Miserably. I couldn’t focus on anything, nothing felt right. I was only there for a year and a half.”
Simply enrolling in college was a challenge in its own right for Kat. Unlike the fairytales you hear about first-generation college graduates, she didn’t get the support from her network of friends and family back home one might expect. After failing out the first time, those voices only grew louder when she made the decision a decade later to give college another shot.
“I’m still walking around in a haze of disbelief that I did this,” she said just days before she would walk through graduation — and before she’d learned she was chosen to give the commencement address. “It seems like such a small thing for many people, but so many people were so skeptical and so doubtful. I have a sense of pride that nothing stopped me, even though I had plenty that could have.”
Prior failures do not predict future success. A lot of our students who didn’t succeed the first time at college find that it was all about the time and the place.
Plenty, indeed. From elbow surgery to ADHD to being a single mom with a newborn at home and a fiancé halfway around the world caring for his ailing father, Kat could rattle off a laundry list of potential barriers to her success. One by one, however, she tackled these challenges head on with the help and support of caring instructors and staff at Northland.
“Prior failures do not predict future success,” according to Linnea Schluessler, head of Northland’s Academic Success Center. “A lot of our students who didn’t succeed the first time at college find that it was all about the time and the place. Kat is one of the hardest-working students I’ve ever met.”
You could argue — quite successfully — that the timing may still not have been perfect, but Northland turned out to be exactly the right place for Kat to achieve her academic goals and launch her career in healthcare.
Kat never went looking for help at school. It may never have occurred to her to even ask if help was available. More likely, though, she was simply tired of asking others to pitch in, as life off campus was already a hodgepodge of friends, neighbors, and family helping Kat balance work, school and childcare for her baby girl while her fiancé, Abdullah, was out of the country.
It took chronic nerve pain that required surgery on the elbow of her dominant arm to open Kat’s eyes to the world of academic accommodations. That somewhat reluctant first encounter with Linnea at the Academic Success Center changed everything.
Starting from the basic foundational belief that every student can be a successful learner, the Center provides a learning environment that respects the rights of all students and offers equal opportunities to achieve academic success through staff and peer tutoring, supplemental instruction, and study skills development. It also ensures that students with psychological, physical and/or learning disabilities are provided equal access to the programs, services, and activities offered at Northland.
The way we view it at Northland… is seeing the academic environment as a place where everyone should have the opportunity to succeed.
For Kat, the conversation started with how to overcome the challenges brought on from her elbow surgery, but quickly broadened to encompass the full range of accommodations provided by the Center.
“I met up with (Linnea) because I needed accommodations for my elbow,” Kat explained. “I wasn’t going to be able to take notes during class and was worried about tests, too. As we chatted and got to know each other, we talked about my ADHD and the anxiety it caused me, and she began to explain the different options to make things easier so I wouldn’t have as much anxiety,” Kat explains. “A test, for example… all I see is the timer in the room and I can’t concentrate. It happened in math class. I was struggling so bad, so I went to Linnea and asked, ‘What can we do?’ She arranged for me to take tests on a computer in a separate room with no distractions.”
The goal of providing accommodations to students like Kat is not to make the coursework easier or lower the academic standards. Not in the slightest. The goal is simply to remove the barriers, distractions or any unnecessary restrictions within the classroom or any given learning environment.
“In the field of disability services, you see it either as being forced to make as few changes as possible to follow the law,” Linnea explained, “or the way we view it at Northland, which is seeing the academic environment as a place where everyone should have the opportunity to succeed. We won’t change the core requirements of a class, but there are often multiple ways those requirements can be fulfilled. You have to know what’s on the test, you have to be able to perform in the technical field, etc., so we’ll look at those requirements and see if there are alternate pathways to fulfill them.”
Depression, anxiety, ADHD… accommodations are available for both mental and physical health challenges. Kat was able to take advantage of both. When she was unable to use her dominant right hand because her entire arm was in a cast, Linnea and the Academic Success Center made sure Kat was able to get the notes she needed. When her ADHD caused her to focus more on the time clock versus the questions on the test, the Center arranged for a quiet room so Kat could think clearly and ace her tests.
And that’s the other myth of accommodations that Linnea works hard to dispel. When students like Kat graduate with a 4.0 GPA, it’s easy to question the need for separate testing conditions or assistance with note-taking.
When it comes to success, it’s not all about your IQ. Kat worked really hard and has tremendous grit. She did the work. She got the 4.0. She got the job.
“The reason Kat is doing so well is 99% her hard work,” Linnea said matter of factly. “She got access to accommodations in order to succeed, but she did the work. When it comes to success, it’s not all about your IQ. Kat worked really hard and has tremendous grit. She did the work. She got the 4.0. She got the job.”
But not just any job… Kat landed her dream job. And like so many other Northland grads, she got the offer weeks before walking through graduation.
The Road to Mayo Clinic
When Kat was young, she admits she was obsessed with the TV show ER. It was the one thing she and her mom would never miss. Anything medical related, Kat would devour. Her favorite book back then wasn’t a picture book or even a storybook of any kind. It was a medical dictionary filled with descriptions of diseases, symptoms, and procedures. When she wasn’t reading about biopsies or lesions, she was wrapping her little brother up with ace bandages as the two played doctor and patient.
“I asked for stethoscopes and bandages for presents as a kid,” Kat said with a hint of embarrassment. “I wanted to be a doctor and work with kids, so everyone suggested nursing when I started to consider going back to school. But browsing Northland’s website I discovered the surgical technology program and found it really interesting. You get to be in surgery, help people, you get the patient interaction… the more I looked into it, it just sounded right.”
I got to do a shadowing in the operating room as an experience for one of our first classes… that’s when I decided for sure that’s what I wanted to do.
Another common theme among Northland grads is that someone, somewhere, at some point helps connect the dots. Northland’s two campuses are interwoven into the fabric of East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, so it’s hard to walk down the street without bumping into a current student or recent grad. For Kat, it was a coworker.
“I happened to mention it to someone I worked with, and she was going for the same thing and was able to tell me a lot about the program,” Kat said. “It gave me the push to go for it. Then I got to do a shadowing in the operating room as an experience for one of our first classes… that’s when I decided for sure that’s what I wanted to do.”
So what exactly is a surgical technologist? Part assistant, part patient coordinator and part mind-reader.
“Surg techs prepare the operating room, set up the sterile field, know the equipment, gather supplies and assist the surgeon throughout the procedure,” explained Ruth LeTexier, Surgical Technology Program Director for Northland. “The field is really very demanding, so you have to have a high skill level. More and more surgeries are becoming minimally invasive so they have to understand robotics and camera systems, but you also have to be a good communicator. The number one thing employers ask me has to do with students’ soft skills… can they communicate well, are they reliable, are they dependable, are they professional?”
Above all, surgical technologists need perseverance and problem-solving skills, two things Kat has demonstrated time and again throughout her two years at Northland. No two surgeries are ever the same. The human body is put together with the same basic parts, but how those parts come together varies from person to person, so a team heading into the operating room to complete a surgery is expected to problem solve on the spot and communicate almost telepathically throughout it all… hence the “mind reader” quality.
Kat may not claim to read minds, as she definitely didn’t see the job offer from Mayo coming just a few hours after the interview, but she’s proven her perseverance and problem-solving skills many times over. It’s what got her to Northland in the first place. It’s what got her to maintain a 4.0. It’s why faculty and staff like Linnea and Ruth jump at the chance to share her story and accomplishments with others.
“The lesson is you can accomplish your goals through perseverance, even though there may be obstacles in the way,” Ruth said. “To become an accomplished surgical tech, to work as part of a team, to do something in service to others is worth the challenges you faced in your educational path. Kat has really overcome a tremendous amount of challenges, and yet she’s able to rise above that and keep her eye on the goal… and, at the end of the day, she has that sense of accomplishment that I did something for the betterment of another person. That really is service to another — what the healthcare field is all about.”
Northland inspired me to want to keep going. I’ll be the first to graduate college in my family. If I hadn’t found Northland, I wouldn’t be where I’m at… going where I’m going.
Service to others… it’s what inspired a young Kat to dive into that medical book and practice her doctoring on her adoring younger brother. It’s what inspired her to give college a second try. It’s what drove her to succeed, maintain a 4.0 GPA and become the first college graduate in her family. And, without question, her desire to serve is what caught the attention of Mayo Clinic and landed her the dream job. Still, she heaps the praise back on her Northland support team.