With more than 100 years of HVACR industry experience among them, the six instructors at Hennepin Technical College in Minneapolis proudly run one of the top HVACR programs in the country. Standing out among these industry veterans is Rhonda Wiggins, The NEWS’ 2016 Best Instructor runner-up, who began her career 30 years ago in the Baltimore area.

“It’s just always been one set of opportunities leading to another set of opportunities, and when I eventually ended up in Minnesota, I discovered my refrigeration skills were lacking,” Wiggins said. “I knew a lot about heating, and I knew a lot about a lot of other things, but I didn’t know much about refrigeration, so I enrolled at Hennepin Technical College and completed the two-year associate’s program that I now teach.”

Wiggins graduated in 2000 and began working as a pipefitter with Minneapolis St. Cloud Pipefitters Local Union 539. “Then, an old teacher at Hennepin Tech, Tim Bro, contacted me and said there was a teaching position open at the college. At first, I declined, but then it hit me that I’m a little older — I’m not 20 anymore. So I applied and said I’d give it two years, no matter what happens. This is my 10th year.”

Wiggins was quick to point out that she is just one component of the well-oiled machine that is the HVACR program at Hennepin Tech.

“As with any profession, if you don’t have the right tools, you can’t do your job well, and I have the tools,” she said. “I have a wonderful and supportive dean, Joy Bodin, and five fabulous colleagues in HVAC. Four of the six teachers are alumni from this program, and we all took the two-year HVAC program that we now teach. We graduated from here, and our hearts are involved. We care deeply about the program and the school.”

While some programs in the U.S. are struggling to attract new students, Hennepin Technical College is routinely at capacity with 24 students per instructor, which, Wiggins said, is no coincidence.

“Our dean is very supportive, and we also have the best lab, according to HVAC Excellence, which accredited us,” Wiggins said. “We also have fabulous outside support and a strong advisory board. Without those tools in place, it’d be harder. So, this isn’t really about me; it’s about all of us. It’s about our lab, equipment, support, and the dedication of our students.”

The instructors at Hennepin Tech — Dennis “Skip” Hanson, Kent Slavik, Mark Arens, Jim Ruhland, and Chad Murphy — routinely share duties and work together to create curriculums and handle paperwork.

Nicholas Schaible, one of Wiggins’ students, said Wiggins is knowledgeable in her field and recognizes what students need to succeed in their careers.

“She advises us in class as well as with jobs, and she makes sure her students understand what they learn,” he said. “She is helpful, fair, and respectful. She is hands-down the best teacher I’ve ever had. I am so glad I have her as my teacher in my chosen field.”

Mary Jo Gentry, marketing communications manager at Ritchie Engineering Co. Inc., recently lauded Wiggins’ efforts to seek out ways to get newer/better equipment for her classroom with a very limited budget.

“She works very hard to get students ready and rewarded for Skills USA and is always willing to help others in the community,” Gentry added. “She recently took time out of her day to speak at our regional Women in HVACR event. We all walked away with a better understanding of the basis of the industry in which we work.”

Wiggins said she is just happy she can help her students succeed in their careers — and in life.

“I believe technical colleges truly change people’s lives,” she said. “It did that for me. I grew up in western North Carolina, where most of my family worked in a factory, and they struggled, but my dad was a mechanic, and he did OK. This has changed my life, and I know firsthand it’s effective. A school like this makes a difference between someone struggling and someone having something they enjoy doing where they can make a good living.”

Publication date: 9/26/2016

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