DCTC Partners with HAFA Via Service-Learning

DCTC Partners with HAFA Via Service-Learning
DCTC Partners with HAFA Via Service-Learning

CET and Interior Design students apply skill sets in real-world project

Spring 2014 marked a new partnership between the Hmong American Farmers Association, or HAFA, and Dakota County Technical College. The partnership is organized around a service-learning project that harnesses the know-how of students in the college’s Civil Engineering Technology and Interior Design programs. Faculty in both programs are working with their students to help prepare a new HAFA land acquisition for agricultural use.

Janssen Hang, the senior organizer at HAFA, reported that his organization acquired the land, now known as HAFA Farm, with help from an angel investor. “This spring, HAFA members will be farming the parcel, growing an assortment of vegetables and flowers for sale at the local farmers market and through HAFA’s Alternative Markets Program to Minneapolis Public Schools and Fairview Hospitals,” Janssen said, noting that HAFA Farm also provides opportunities for Hmong American farmers to sell fresh produce through the HAFA CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. “Moreover, the land acquisition has helped cultivate new practices such as record-keeping, accessing microloans, high-tunnel production, cover crops and, most importantly, partnerships.”

Located on a 155-acre homestead site near the Vermillion River just west of U.S. Highway 52 in Dakota County, HAFA Farm features a century-old farmhouse, a number of outbuildings and a stave silo. The service-learning project focuses on two fronts, reconfiguring the acreage to allocate small plots for Hmong American farmers and redesigning the interior layout of the farmhouse to create a first-floor office setting and a second-floor living corridor for interns and volunteers.

“The interior design students tackled the farmhouse, taking measurements and bringing their creativity to redesign a suitable space to meet the intent of the structure,” Janssen said, adding that civil engineering technology students surveyed the property, evaluated contour and provided a plan for subdividing 125 acres into five-acre parcels that 16 Hmong American farmers will begin working spring 2014.


Interior Design contribution

Interior design instructors, Anne Farniok and Anne Painter, involved students from their program’s Studio I and Drafting II courses in the service-learning project, with the aim to increase knowledge in the area of design practices for single-family residences. The project has four phases:

  1. Programming: identifying client needs and goals
  2. Schematic Design: developing conceptual skills through initial design concepts
  3. Design Development: detailing and refining ideas from the schematic design phase
  4. Construction Documents: drafting documents in preparation for the bidding and contracting of construction, fixtures and furnishings

“Thirteen of our students went out to HAFA Farm to explore what could be done with the existing foursquare farmhouse,” Anne Farniok said. “The house currently has six bedrooms and one bathroom. HAFA would like to update the space to modern standards while adding one bath and remodeling the main level as office space.”

Each student created of a full range of deliverables, including:

  • Field measure
  • Conceptual images
  • Furniture plan
  • Elevation
  • Ceiling plan
  • 3D/axonometric
  • Furniture, plumbing, lighting and equipment specification
  • Finish plan
  • Presentation board
  • Project booklet

Anne Painter reported that the service-learning project integrated many different aspects of design while bringing multiple classes together. “Looking at an entire project as a whole and not just individual pieces allows the students to experience what designing will be like once they leave school,” Anne said. “It is a great opportunity!”

Student perspective
Casandra Behnke

Casandra Behnke
Age: 32
Hometown: Hastings, Minn.
Residence now: Hastings, Minn.
Program area: Interior Design
Degree: A.A.S.

Casandra Behnke is following a childhood dream in the DCTC Interior Design program. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved looking at interiors,” Casandra said. “I remember ripping pages out of my grandma’s Good Housekeeping magazine and putting them in a three-ring binder.”

A 2000 graduate of Hastings High School, Casandra admits studying was not always her first priority, but she does have fond memories of taking an elective in interior design. “I loved the course,” she said. “Interior design came to me naturally.”

After high school, Casandra got married and started a family. Eventually, she decided trying her hand at college-level interior design. The DCTC program has exactly what she needs, great instructors with plenty of industry experience. “They push us in the right direction,” Casandra said, “and still give us the leeway to be creative.”

Space planning is her favorite part of the interior design process. She likes seeing how things can work together cohesively. The service-learning project gave her the chance to put her design talents to the test on an actual structure. “We had to find products and put components in place using Revit [Autodesk building design software],” she said. “We learned while we worked.”

Casandra’s plans for after DCTC include going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in interior design. Career-wise, she is interested in the commercial side, especially doing design work for restaurants, hotels, retail locations and firms. She and her husband, Dustin, a cabinet fabricator, have one child, Trinity, who is 8 years old. Casandra’s favorite pastimes included canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, playing Frisbee golf, ice skating and helping her daughter pursue her love of art.

As for her studies nowadays, Casandra is having the time of her life. “It’s amazing how well I’m doing,” she said. “It blows my mind.”

Civil Engineering Technology contribution

Civil engineering technology instructors, Alan Hancock and Travis Van Neste, welcomed the service-learning project as an optimal way to deliver professional-level field experience to students in the program’s drafting and surveying courses. Alan reported that the CET students traveled to the farm site and completed survey work using the Trimble S3 Robotic Total Station as well as a real-time kinematic (RTK) global positioning system (GPS) virtual reference system (VRS) that utilizes a cell phone to connect with American and Russian GPS satellites. The students identified spots ill-suited for intensive cultivation due to the steepness of the slope. They later created a contour map and designed a five-acre lot layout using AutoCAD Civil 3D.

“We were looking for the ideal configuration,” Alan said. “HAFA Farm is a cooperative that gives Hmong American farmers access to land and the means to market their produce. We are glad to help.”

Travis Van Neste reported that the work his students are doing for the Hmong American Farmers Association is a perfect example of what sets DCTC’s Civil Engineering Technology program apart from other programs. “We really stress the practical application of every part of our program,” Travis said, “and strive to find real-world applications of what our students have learned in the classroom over the winter. Alan and I were both very excited for this opportunity. The size of this project required a collaborative effort of five different student-managed survey crews. Coordinating this project utilized not only the technical skills the students have been working on, but also put into practice some important concepts of managing personnel, equipment and data that our students would otherwise not have been exposed to. This experience was a great opportunity for the students, the farmers and DCTC—a real win-win-win situation.”

Student perspective
Nathan DuBois

Nathan DuBois
Age: 31
Hometown: St. Paul, Minn.
Residence now: Lakeville, Minn.
Program area: Civil Engineering Technology
Degree: A.A.S.

Nathan DuBois worked as a utility location technician specializing in damage prevention before deciding to enroll in the CET program at DCTC as a way to advance his career. He knew what civil engineering techs did on the job from his own work experience and realized he was more than ready to take on that role.

A 2001 graduate of Chico Senior High School in Chico, Calif., Nathan chose Dakota County Technical College for a number of reasons. “The campus is close to home, my wife is a graduate of the Interior Design program, and DCTC is the best option in the state for civil engineering technology.”

Nathan is a hands-on learner who likes that his instructors emphasize practical applications for the theories covered in the classroom. He also likes that his instructors are seasoned industry professionals. Alan Hancock has more than 20 years experience working as a civil engineering technician in nearly every aspect of the field. Travis Van Neste owns his own surveying company.

“Applying what you learn is the best way to retain knowledge,” Nathan said, adding that the HAFA Farm service-learning project gave him the chance to get practical experience using the equipment of his future occupation. “Basically, we did what we will be doing in the field. We worked with county coordinates, established boundaries, did a topographic survey of the property to get elevations, and determined the best way to divide the land into equally usable five-acre sections.”

Nathan’s wife, Christine, is a mortgage underwriter at Wells Fargo. Nathan and Christine have one child, Kailyn, 2, with another daugher, Olivia, on the way. In his free time, Nathan enjoys softball, bowling, working around the house and traveling. One of his favorite trips was to Playa del Carmen, a resort town on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The family has two shorthair-mix cats, Sally, 16, and Chichi, 9.

Service-learning contribution

Katie Halcrow, the director of service-learning at Dakota County Technical College and Inver Hills Community College, recognized the potential for an ongoing partnership with HAFA and helped get the service-learning project underway. She contacted CET Instructor Alan Hancock in January 2014 and proposed the idea.

“I have been so impressed with the ways that Alan, Travis, Anne and Anne have so seamlessly integrated this work with HAFA into their curricula,” Katie said. “They immediately embraced this collaboration as a way for their students to gain hands-on, real-world experiences while honing their problem-solving skills. I really can’t speak highly enough of their work. I also want to give a shout-out to HAFA, whose work and mission relate to so many different programs on the DCTC campus—and I think this is just the start of many collaborations to come. We truly appreciate their partnership and work with our students.”

About the Hmong American Farmers Association

The Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) is a member-based organization that was newly created in October 2011 to serve, support and advocate for Hmong American farmers and their families.

The organization’s mission is to advance the economic, social and cultural prosperity of Hmong American farmers through economic development, capacity building, advocacy and research. More specifically, HAFA uses an organizing approach to work with its members and other farmers in the Hmong community to access land, equipment, capital and trainings so that they can expand and improve their farming operations.

HAFA is the only organization in Minnesota that was started by and is led by Hmong American farmers. It is the only one staffed by bi-lingual and bi-cultural Hmong Americans with over 40 years of combined experience in farming. And it is the only one singularly focused on the advancement of Hmong American farmers and their families. — courtesy of the HAFA website

Janssen Hang is looking forward to continuing the partnership with DCTC. “It has been a pleasure to work with staff and students at Dakota County Technical College, knowing that the HAFA Farm is an experimental source to cultivate the next generation of professionals,” Janssen said. “Moreover, the Hmong American Farmers Association and our members are extremely grateful for the amount of motivation, creativity and hard work that was committed to make this farm operational. The partnership has been rewarding, and I hope the HAFA Farm continues to be part of the college’s Service-Learning program.”

For more information about service-learning or how to get a service-learning project off the ground, contact:
  • Katie Halcrow
    Director of Service-Learning
    Dakota County Technical College and Inver Hills Community College
For more information about the Interior Design program at DCTC, contact:
For more information about Civil Engineering Technology at DCTC, contact: