Growth Groups: Innovating Through COVID-19

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The Minnesota Educational Opportunity Center at Minneapolis College has launched an innovative program to assist individuals navigate career exploration during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since April, more than 300 persons have participated in this program administered by Kristina Wagner, who has conducted a series of “Growth Group” opportunities assisting unemployed adults seeking access to higher education and career opportunities.

“Our challenge was to quickly find innovative ways to provide high quality educational services to a large volume of unemployed people—more than 600,000 as a result of the pandemic,” Wagner said. “There was an immediate need for high-quality virtual services. From multiple conversations with Program Planner Karyn Berg, I designed a delivery model ranging from low contact services to high contact services.”

Wagner implemented more than 50 innovative online programs the past six months.  “I called these “Growth Group” workshops Innovating through COVID-19 designed to support people with career and educational planning,” she said.

The most effective component for participants focuses on a high-contact aspect of the program. “The unexpected benefit from this high contact group is that intimate contact with other people has helped curb the adverse effects of social isolation, which is a rising concern during COVID-19,” Wagner said.

For example, participants in high contact groups sign into a Zoom call using internet access to interact using video and audio on a tablet, laptop or desktop device. Participants take assessments, engage in activities with other people and respond to reflective questions.

“Zoom breakout rooms are used to hold peer coaching conversations which garner many valuable benefits,” Wagner said. “These include camaraderie, collaborating with others, acquiring knowledge through shared information on career, education and employment services, and establishing action steps and accountability structures from peer interactions.”

Innovating through COVID-19 encompasses the work of the Educational Center, the state’s CareerForce work centers assisting job seekers and Ramsey County Workforce Solutions, where much of the coordination is performed by a team including Program Planner Karyn Berg and Career Lab representatives Karen Dyson, Kathy Kinneberg, Carol Foley and Ramona Berger.

The Education Opportunity Center is a free educational outreach program that helps eligible adults in Minnesota metro area pursue a college education and/or training. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Title IV, TRIO programs.

Students can apply for admission and financial aid, examine career options and choose a college or training program. “The feedback we’ve received from participants is that this program is very informative and needed,” Wagner said. “Participants value opportunities to connect and network with others and share resources.”

When the pandemic triggered hundreds of thousands job seekers, Wagner already was poised to expand her experience in peer coaching, from a recent classroom experience. “When I first started facilitating peer coaching, I was immediately drawn to it,” she said. “It was inspiring to watch people grow from mutual support.

“Peer coaches seemed engaged with a meaningful process that moved their partners forward, with a sense of goodwill that came from helping others. I had been exploring peer coaching models and when the pandemic hit, we were able to offer online career classes, with a peer coaching component. “
More information is available at the Educational Opportunity Center or through CareerForce.


Kristina holds an Ed.D. with a research focus on co-created learning in coaching. She has multiple life and career coaching certificates. Her current enthusiasm involves designing and facilitating peer coaching groups. She provides individual and group coaching services to people from various educational and life backgrounds. Whatever their circumstances, coaching clients become aware they are at choice—which leads to a cycle of action, learning, growth.  As a presenter at local and regional conferences, Kristina uses her creativity to foster growth in others. She has designed curricula and delivered several hundred workshops, presentations, and training at college, non-profit, for-profit, and government levels.

Kristina puts great importance on professional development, which ensures that she utilizes best practices with clients and other professionals. She uses a variety of assessments, approaches, and tools, including asking compelling questions to encourage breakthrough results. A colleague says Kristina “has always been committed to making sure each person is able to not only understand a new direction but what steps it takes to get there.”