An innovative and unique non-profit organization, Cook County Higher Education (CCHE) serves the higher education needs of Grand Marais, a rural, remote community nestled on Lake Superior’s North Shore. It provides distance education programs to a community more than 125 miles from the nearest college or university.
Executive director Paula Sundet celebrates the creation of the organization, stating, “We tried for 20 years to get a community college here, but just did not have the resources to support it. CCHE was the answer.”
CCHE collaborates with regional colleges and universities to offer certificates, diplomas and degrees that provide better access to employment opportunities in the community. In 2009, CCHE received a $125,000 grant from the Blandin Foundation to assist in the purchasing and renovating of an old church.
According to Sundet, “This grant established the North Shore Campus as a physical location to offer classes and training. It was an amazing process for both higher education and the community. The grant we received from the Blandin Foundation leveraged other funding to pay for the $235,000 project. It was pivotal in the continued growth of CCHE.”
Students agree that CCHE has had a positive impact on their education.
“The continuing education real estate course was very helpful,” Sue Hakes says. “The topics were directly relevant to Cook County issues.” Hakes expresses her appreciation for CCHE, even so far as saying that if it was not for the convenience of the courses offered, she would not have stayed in the community she refers to as “fabulous.”
Broadband access for Cook County has traditionally been a critical issue. Without the financial resources (or population) to draw service providers to the community, it has been dependant on state and federal projects for its initial infrastructure.
CCHE staff and alumni are also complimentary in their praise of Blandin’s Public Policy & Engagement (PP&E) initiative, which helps to make broadband a reality for the area. Sundet explains what a difference it makes to the community to have high-speed capabilities. With online capabilities, many educators can perform their jobs remotely, while positively contributing to the quality of education in Cook County.
Along with grantmaking and PP&E, the Blandin Foundation Community Leadership Program is also making an impact in the lives of Cook County residents. When Sundet participated in the 2001 leadership training, there were 23 other Cook County residents alongside her. She mentions that since that time, many of the participants have run for office, and almost all have been involved in organizations and efforts that benefit the community.
“My role as executive director at Cook County Higher Education places me in the public eye, locally and statewide,” Sundet says. “My leadership training contributed a large part in helping me gracefully shoulder that responsibility. Blandin’s leadership training has helped shape Cook County as a community that accomplishes goals using collaboration and teamwork.”
While there is still work to be done, she says, there is now more willingness to find solutions that benefit the whole community.