Hanson finds her why in para-to-teacher pathway program

BISMARCK, N.D. – Sara Hanson’s career path changed during the nightly news.

Hanson was at home with her children during the COVID-19 pandemic and her husband, Brent, had lost his job in 2020. On top of that, her father had unexpectedly passed away in 2017, leaving her feeling like the walls were closing in and questioning what else she could do to further support her family.

But, a short story on Minot State’s para-to-teacher program during the news sparked a new path.

“My dad unexpectedly died in his sleep, in February (2017), and I had my second baby in June. I had a lot of reflection time,” Hanson said. “I kind of grieved through my daughters, there were all of the firsts for everything, and my dad wasn’t around for those. It was a really bizarre time, and it really made me think about my future.

“I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the para-to-teacher program and it was really random one night, my sister sent me a news clip of MSU offering it. I was interested but I was also like, there’s no way I can do this.”

The MSU para-to-teacher pathway in special education was developed by a North Dakota Department of Public Instruction (DPI) grant in 2020 and is a two-year plan designed to empower paraprofessionals to earn a Bachelor of Science in Education degree with a major in Special Education.

While the program intrigued her, the logistics of going back to school were daunting.

“We talked about it, and I knew if I did this, I would need to fully commit to it,” she said. “That has been one of my problems in my past, I can’t fully commit, there is always this or that going on. But this was different. We knew it was a two to three years of 100% and I decided to apply.”

Initially, Hanson was past the deadline for financial assistance for the program, but she decided to continue with the application process and decide what her next steps might be. The financial burden could have been a huge roadblock if it were not for a random set of circumstances.

“The news clip talked about federal funding and the two biggest areas were going to be if this would work in my schedule and how the financial part would go,” Hanson said. “I got my letter saying I was accepted, but it also said, unfortunately, all of the grant positions were taken.

“I thought I might have to take a step back, but randomly a spot opened up. I don’t know if I understood what I was getting into at the time, but I was in.”

The program was also a second chance both at finishing her degree and earning it at Minot State. She started at MSU after graduating from Bishop Ryan High School in 2004, but the passion for a career just wasn’t there.

“I can remember being in one of my first special education classes and the professor was talking about if I was going to be a teacher and at the time, I’m 18-19 years old and all I could think about was, no, I’m not going to teach,” she said. “I changed majors and was done with that. But in all my classes at that time, I had to force myself to sit through courses. I wasn’t super passionate about anything.”

Finding a place in the Bismarck Public School System ended up being a series of random events for Hanson as well. After stopping her education at MSU, she split time between Minot and Arizona to experience life, as she put it, working steadily bartending. While Hanson earned decent money, there was a sense she needed to do something different so she moved to Bismarck to be closer to her parents and sister.

It was her sister that suggested she should apply for an instructional aide at a middle school. During the interview, the principal told her she wasn’t the right person for the job.

“He goes, ‘I’m not hiring you for this,’ and I thought wow, you couldn’t even think about it for a while,” she said laughing. “He said he had something better for me, something that would challenge me. I ended up working as an ED aide working one-on-one with an eighth-grade girl. We developed this relationship — I almost wasn’t her teacher, and I wasn’t her case manager — it ended up being this crazy, beautiful thing. I really hadn’t thought about what all goes into education at a middle school, especially special education, but it led me to where I am today.”

Hanson’s career in BPS has come full circle from that first interview to a full-time special education position that started in January.

“My coordinator mentioned to me in October there would be district posts starting in January or February and I should apply,” she said. “Even though I still had some things to finish up, I got the call in January and was hired. I kept saying, this is crazy, it’s crazy, it’s just crazy, but, after they accepted my contract, I finally felt I was exactly where I thought I should be.”

Her dedication over the past 10 years, along with going back to school in the newly formed MSU program, earned her a mention in a BPS school board meeting in the fall.

“It was an utter shock for me,” Hanson said. “I thought I was going to speak about the program and what kind of opportunities there are out there. But for them to share a little bit about me and my story, it was nice. It threw me for a bit of a loop, but it was nice to be recognized like that.”

The support she received from BPS as well as her family kept her moving forward. As someone currently working in the school system, finding time to study proved to be difficult.

“It took up a significant amount of time,” Hanson said. “I have so many photos where we were in the car and Sara’s doing homework on the computer while the kids are watching movies, or we are all at the campground and everyone’s playing in the yard and there’s Sara doing her math homework. It became so much of who I was. I was a student. I’m a mom. I’m a wife. I needed to have so many things work out for me the way they did.”

The time it took her to finish what she started out of high school made graduation day even more special for Hanson and her family.

“My mom came up to me at the ceremony and gave me 18 long-stemmed roses, one for each year out of high school,” she said. “My parents were both very adamant about furthering our education and this was a big moment for me. It was very sentimental and thoughtful.

“Being able to show my kids that you can keep working and you can accomplish things for your self was very motivating for me.”

About Minot State University
Minot State University is a public university dedicated to excellence in education, scholarship, and community engagement achieved through rigorous academic experiences, active learning environments, commitment to public service, and a vibrant campus life.

Published: 07/19/23   

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