It’s never too late to go back to school, and Doug Bunnell of Missoula is living proof. Bunnell, a former meth addict once on a course to "nowhere fast," said a state program aimed at people who never completed college has put him on track to get a degree 20 years after he flunked out on his first try.
His parents were both University of Montana grads, and he always believed he would follow in their footsteps, and enrolled after high school in the late '90s. But after his mom died when he was 23, Bunnell started experimenting with drugs.
“I spiraled out of control,” he said. “I felt disconnected and didn’t have a clear path.”
He flunked out of college shortly thereafter.
“My drug use became my confidant,” he explained on Thursday, speaking at a panel at UM convened to discuss how to grow the state’s workforce in the face of an aging population. Bunnell is a success story for the state's "Become an Alum" program that aims to convince people to go back and finish their degrees. It wasn't easy for him.
By the time he was 30, he was using methamphetamine and had a felony criminal record.
Finally, he went to the Nexus Treatment Center in Lewistown and got clean. People in his life encouraged him to go back to school, so he met with a UM recruiter. Two decades had passed since he had been on campus, and everything about student life had changed.
“The Internet, cellphones, everything had changed in the 20 years since I was a student,” he said. “There were a lot of barriers, everything from vaccinations to transcripts.”
He met with Carol Evanger, a program specialist at the Missoula Job Service, who directed Bunnell to the “Become an Alum” program. Part of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s “MontanaWorks” initiative, it encourages people who got off track during their first college try to give it another go. And Bunnell is now a social work student at UM.
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“It’s just been a fantastic experience,” he said. “I thought my story was so complex and so unique. That’s the trait of an addict, a lot. You think nobody is going to understand it. That simply wasn’t the case.”
Gov. Steve Bullock and UM president Seth Bodnar convened a roundtable on Thursday to share success stories through the Become an Alum program, along with the Tech Skills for Tomorrow initative. Both are aimed at giving people paths to employment, because Montana faces a severe workforce shortage. According to Galen Hollenbaugh, the commissioner of the Montana Department of Labor, there are a little more than 500,000 people in the state’s workforce right now, but 100,000 will be eligible for retirement in the next decade. Montana is the oldest state in the western United States, and with the economy here heating up and businesses looking to hire, that means officials will have to get creative in addressing worker shortages.
“There are 120,000 Montanans who attended a Montana University System institution but left before attaining a degree or credential,” Bullock said. “Become an Alum is aimed at identifying these students and showing them that there is an opportunity to finalize that degree and gain a credential and skills that employers will be looking for as they seek to fill in-demand jobs.”
According to the governor’s office, the Department of Labor and UM have “worked together to re-enroll 99 students this fall with another 38 students committed to attend in spring 2020.” Also, 16 businesses so far have expressed interest in using the program to recruit recent grads or further educate their current workforce.
The pilot program began with state officials identifying students who completed some credits at UM within the last five years but didn’t finish their program, Bullock said. Then, Department of Labor and UM staff began contacting the group of former students to “assess barriers, discover their interests, and offer intensive and individual career guidance and case management services if they express interest in resuming their education.”
Erin Loranger, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email to the Missoulian that the Become an Alum is a program within the Future Ready Montana Cabinet, an initiative directed by Bullock to coordinate education and workforce initiatives and increase the percentage of Montanans who complete a degree, certificate or other credentials. She said that state officials in the program examined labor market data and wage outcomes to “ensure Montanans in a variety of education and training programs can make informed decisions about their future.”
The initiative also includes programs that encourage dual enrollment, career and technical education, work-based learning, and apprenticeships.
“At the University of Montana, we are in the business of creating inclusive prosperity for all,” Bodnar said. “Programs like Become an Alum and our Tech Skills for Tomorrow initiative address current workforce needs and help shape Montana’s economy of tomorrow.”