Holmes Community College student Ricky "Otto" Ulland is the definition of a MI-BEST success story. MI-BEST, or Mississippi Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, is a program implemented through the Mississippi Community College Board. It allows qualified applicants to take courses they need to prepare for the High School Equivalency (HSE) diploma while at the same time training for a future career.
"I graduated high school on May 22, 1998, and started working the very next day," Ulland said. "I walked across the stage in my cap and gown, the whole nine yards. Then I didn't touch a book again until 2017.
"I was born and raised in Laurel, but finished high school in Calhoun City. After that, I moved around a lot, working various jobs; I even lived in Mexico for nine months and California for 11 years. I finally got tired of working grunt jobs and decided it was time to come home and put my feet on the ground where I belong. I moved to Grenada in 2010 and a few years later decided to enroll in the welding program at Holmes."
After one semester in the program, Grenada Director of Career-Technical Education/MI-BEST Project Coordinator Larry Webster discovered that there was an issue with Ulland's diploma. He informed Ulland that he would need to earn his HSE diploma to continue in the Welding and Cutting Technology program at Holmes.
"I didn't realize it, but I guess my diploma was an occupational diploma or some kind that shows I finished 12 years of high school, but doesn't count the same as a regular one," Ulland said. "Mr. Webster told me I had two options: I could get my HSE diploma before the spring semester began and enroll in the MI-BEST program or I could drop out of college right then, get my HSE diploma and come back again in the fall semester. I told him, 'I don't quit. I'm not a quitter and I will get my GED right now.'
"I went in the week after Thanksgiving and began my Adult Basic Education (ABE) classes while still doing my college courses too. I think it was Jan. 8, right before school started, when I completed my test to earn my GED. I finished the spring semester and graduated with my Welding Career Certificate in May of 2017. Then, in May of 2018, I earned the Welding Technical Certificate. I even graduated with honors, a 3.5 GPA, which I was really proud of."
MI-BEST, originally funded by a $6 million grant given by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2015, is based on the nationally-recognized I-BEST (Integrating Basic Education and Skills Training) program, which originated in Washington state. Offered at each of the 15 community colleges across Mississippi, MI-BEST offers a way for ABE students to successfully transition into a Career and Technical Education program, ultimately providing a direct pathway to a career.
At Holmes, MI-BEST options include Business Office Technology and Welding and Cutting Technology at the Grenada Campus and the Attala Center in Kosciusko. The program covers all costs of earning an HSE diploma as well as 15 semester hours, book costs and a $200 stipend after successful completion of the program. Advisers (called navigators) also continue to work with students to help keep them on track and encourage them as they progress through their chosen program.
"Otto has been a model student," Webster said. "He came to me ready to do whatever it took to earn that welding certification and when I told him about the MI-BEST program, he was all in. His momentum hasn't stopped yet."
Upon earning his welding certification, Modine Manufacturing Company in Grenada offered Ulland a position. The company also offered to pay a portion of the tuition if he went back to get his Associate of Applied Science degree in Maintenance Technology.
"The MI-BEST program and the welding program at Holmes opened doors for me," Ulland said. "When I say it opened doors, I mean as soon as I graduated in welding, I had five major companies calling me about a job, one of which was Modine.
"I took them up on their offer to help pay for my maintenance degree and I should have my associate's by December. The whole time I've been going to school for maintenance technology, I've been working full-time, too. I work six days a week, 10 hours a day, but I'm proud to say that I've been on the President's List for the past four semesters at Holmes."
Grenada Maintenance Technology instructor Nettie Coggin is one of the many who has been cheering Ulland on during his time at Holmes.
"Ricky (Otto) is a hardworking, conscientious student," Coggin said. "He actively participates in class, usually by interjecting a real-life experience to emphasize the course material. He is affable and works well in group exercises. I have enjoyed having him in my classes."
Ulland's success thus far has him contemplating a bachelor's degree, as well.
"I'm interested in earning a degree in engineering and I've been told that if I keep my GPA high enough, I might can earn a ride to Mississippi State University," Ulland said.
Ulland and his wife, Jessica, a nurse, have three children: Paige 16, Nathaniel, 12 and Addison, 9. He is an active member of the Grenada community, and the Grenada League for Adult Development (GLAD) Center even asked him to serve as a guest speaker at one of their graduation ceremonies.
"We could not be more proud of Otto," Webster said. "This is our third year to have the MI-BEST program in Grenada - in conjunction with the GLAD Center for HSE diploma resources - and our second year to have it at the Attala Center. We have 50 plus students enrolled in the program, but I have never seen anybody earn their HSE diploma and other certifications/degrees as quickly as Otto has."
"MI-BEST was a blessing in disguise," Ulland said. "Mr. Webster was a huge blessing himself for setting me up with the program. MI-BEST covered all HSE diploma costs, 15 semester hours for welding and graduation costs. On top of all that, the staff has encouraged me along the way and made sure that I've had everything I need to be successful. I'm very happy with the way all of this turned out."
For more information about the MI-BEST opportunities at Holmes, contact Webster at firstname.lastname@example.org or (662) 227.2358.
Visit https://www.mibest.ms/holmes-community-college for additional MI-BEST contact information.
IN THIS PHOTO: Pictured is Otto Ulland, a Holmes MI-BEST program and welding graduate who is now a maintenance technology major on the Grenada Campus.