Sophie Varnum was sure of two things after graduating from Wibaux High School – cooking was her passion, and four-year colleges weren’t for her.
Since her freshman year of high school, Varnum had been interested in cooking and loved the cooking classes Wibaux High School offered. To her, food was an important way to connect with people and build relationships. While her friends were off attending four-year schools, Varnum instead enrolled in the culinary arts program at Gallatin College Montana State University, where she found the type of education, hands-on work and individuality she desired.
“We had a lot of creativity in the classroom and got to experiment in the kitchen,” Varnum said. “Not everything turns out the same in the kitchen, and we just went with the flow, tried new things and were able to test our own skills and branch out.”
Before graduating in May, Varnum already had a position in the culinary industry lined up, thanks to an internship with Inspired Madness. She currently works as a line cook and prep cook at Lot G Café in Bozeman and hopes to one day work in the hosting or catering industry.
This year, Gallatin College hit an important milestone and celebrated its 10th anniversary serving the Gallatin Valley communities and Southwest Montana. In the last decade, the college has been instrumental in providing local industries with valuable skilled employees, such as Varnum, and giving students quality education and the professional tools to succeed. Whether students have graduated with a workforce degree, transferred to MSU with an associate’s degree or completed credits through its dual enrollment program, Gallatin College has become an integral part of Bozeman’s economy and educational offerings, said Stephanie Gray, dean of the college.
“Being a college at a land-grant university is a great fit for the mission of Gallatin College because we provide affordability and increased accessibility for students, while meeting local community needs.” Gray said.
Previously known as the MSU-Great Falls College of Technology, in May 2010 it was renamed Gallatin College Montana State University to more accurately reflect the college’s location and offerings.
Under the new name, the college’s first dean was Bob Hietala, who filled the role until his retirement in 2019. In those early years, Gallatin College’s programs were more limited and provided developmental education, welding, interior design and aviation. But the college grew alongside Bozeman’s economy and recognized a greater need to create programs that support the growing workforce, such as photonics, health coding and cybersecurity. In 2014, Gallatin College opened its east campus off Bozeman’s Osterman Drive, which gave it the much-needed boost in capacity to serve its students and grow enrollment.
Under Hietala, Gallatin College’s enrollment growth was the fastest of any college or university in Montana, going from serving approximately 100 students pursuing certificates and associate degrees in 2009 to more than 600 today. Additionally, the college serves hundreds of Montana State students pursuing other degrees through developmental courses in math and writing.
Gray became dean in July 2019. She had been the workforce program development director at the college since 2012 and saw firsthand how rapidly Gallatin College expanded.
During her time in that position, Gray led, designed and implemented eight new workforce programs; partnered with the MSU College of Education, Health and Human Development to launch the hospitality management and culinary arts programs; secured more than $2.4 million in grant funding; and oversaw growth of the college’s dual enrollment program from 25 enrolled students to more than 600.
Today, Gallatin College offers 14 workforce programs and has graduated more than 1,000 students since 2009. Gray said that the college graduated 27 students in 2011. Last year there were 190 graduates.
“Sometimes people say higher education is slow to adapt and change, but Gallatin College has been able to quickly respond to workforce needs over the years,” Gray said.
Part of Gallatin College’s mission is to support the community’s vibrant economy and to provide graduates access to high-paying jobs. To meet its promises, Gallatin College works extensively with industry and community leaders in to determine what programs need expansion and to develop new ones, said Gray.
While attending MSU and after changing his major twice, Devon Gwynn switched gears once more and attended Gallatin College for its welding technology certification program. He wanted a career path that would allow him access to a job quickly, but also with livable wages. He enrolled in 2018 and has since completed his welding certification and is currently working on his CNC machinery technology certification. Gwynn noted that, within two to three months of entering the program, he had both a welding and a machinery job lined up due to the demand from the industries.
“The school has our backs. They go through a lot of effort to deal with employers,” Gwynn said. “The instructors are in constant contact with members of the community, asking what specifically they want, what the students should focus on and act as an intermediary between employers and students. It’s a very engaging process, and they put in a lot of effort and it gives results.”
Like most two-year colleges, Gallatin College’s student body is made up of students from different walks of life, from traditional high school graduates to adults looking for a career change. In order to meet student needs, Gray said Gallatin College prides itself on allowing for flexibility in its curriculum so students can feel creative and find what they need out of their degree.
Kelly Arnold, who graduated from Gallatin College in 2019, boasted of the instructors’ abilities to work with students’ schedules and help them understand the balance between work, school and their personal lives. Arnold was a nontraditional student who attended Gallatin College while working in the health care field. She graduated from Gallatin College as a registered medical assistant and received her small business management certificate. She said that her instructors were understanding and would work with her and other students. They also cared for the students’ overall well-being and would remind them to schedule personal time and escape from the stresses of work and school.
“All my teachers were great. I got to know them all very well. They all knew I was working a lot and that I wanted to make something of myself, so being able to feel I was a part of something with my teachers and knowing my personal life, it was very helpful and I didn’t feel like I was in over my head all the time,” said Arnold, who currently works as a care coordinator for Qualicare.
“Our instructors are passionate about what they are teaching, they’re experts in their field and love sharing that with students,” Gray added. “They get them excited about potential careers and how to be professionals which is important right now. We hear a lot about how important technical skills are, but the other pieces are learning how to find solutions, be on a team and communicate accordingly.”
With its first 10 years in the books, Gallatin College has a wealth of experiences, student success and relationships to build off and prepare for its next decade. Going forward, Gray said she is focused on myriad projects and ideas to grow the college. This includes adding a heating, ventilation and air conditioning program as well as working with local nonprofits and making connections with low income members of the community who want a career change or are seeking to improve their economic situations.
“I’m excited to run a college that reflects the environment of the community we are in,” Gray said. “Not only keeping pace with the local economy through education, but also mirroring the culture and values of our area. In order to accomplish this in the next 10 years, Gallatin College will need a building that serves the entire community to help individuals fulfill their dreams, achieve their potential and give back to this vibrant place we all love.”