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Building her own future

Kaylyn Nygaard poses with two of her latest carpentry projects. The Cannon Falls High School graduate will work with Habitat for Humanity this summer while exploring a career in construction.

When Kaylyn Nygaard watched Habitat for Humanity volunteers build her family's home a few years ago, she said it was frustrating being too young to take part.

"I felt bad that I couldn't help," Nygaard said. "I was interested in the process and wanted to be a part of it."

Now a Cannon Falls High School graduate with a number of carpentry projects under her belt, Nygaard is finally getting her chance.

Nygaard was selected to be one of this year's VISTA Summer Associates, an eight-week AmeriCorp program for humanitarian work in low-income communities. She will work alongside Goodhue County Habitat for Humanity to help coordinate building projects in Cannon Falls and Red Wing.

"I'll be helping volunteers stay busy and help keep them safe," Nygaard said. "I'm just really excited to get started."

Following her work this summer, Nygaard said she will pursue a carpentry certification at Rochester Community and Technical College during the fall semester.

The experience she gains working on Habitat for Humanity projects this summer will help her decide if she wants to further pursue a two-year construction management degree, Nygaard said.

Nygaard's lifelong interest in the construction field is all thanks to her grandfather, who did excavating work for many years.

"He has been my great influence," she said.

She explored that interest in high school, taking as many classes in woodworking and construction as the school offered.

"I really liked (those classes)," said Nygaard, adding that she enjoyed developing her own projects and the hands-on instruction. "That's how I learn best."

Her individual projects included trunks, DVD shelves, towel racks and a bench -- all put to good use at home.

"They're all kind of spread out throughout my house," Nygaard said.

"She has a good eye for quality," said Mark Wolter, vocational teacher at CFHS. "She's the kind of person who will take a bunch of scrap two-by-fours and make a neat project out of them."

Women on the job site

Wolter said he sees a handful of women take his woodworking classes each year, but Nygaard is the first to pursue it as a career.

If she chooses to continue with construction, Nygaard will be joining a small group of women in the trade.

Of the more than 8 million construction workers in the U.S. in 2010, 2.6 percent of them were female, according to data compiled by the National Women's Law Center. That number has remained stagnant for more than 25 years.

The NWLC attributes the low percentage of women in construction in part to "mentors, family and friends" pressuring them out of the trade.

Nygaard admitted many of her female classmates were surprised when they first learned about her interests, but for the most part she found acceptance.

"My friends think it's cool," she said.

As for her male classmates, Nygaard said she slowly gained their respect once they saw her abilities and work ethic.

"Most guys were skeptical at first," Nygaard said. "But once I started working and got more confident, I showed them that I know how to use the tools and that I'm not afraid."

"She's not afraid of anything," Wolter concurred.

"Everybody knows and respects her," he said. "She loves woodworking and has a real knack for it."

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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