This semester, Centennial Hall opens its doors for the third cohort of Kraft Heinz plant workers to be housed on campus since last year’s spring semester.
Centennial Hall opened in the spring semester of the 2022-2023 school year to nine Kraft Heinz plant workers who moved to Kirksville from American Samoa, Micronesia, and Hawaii. This resulted from a contract between Kraft Heinz and the University in which the plant workers would live as a cohort in the residence hall for four months until they could secure long-term housing in town. Tyana Lange, vice president for student enrollment, managing, and marketing, said this arrangement is similar to other non-degree-seeking housing programs. Still, it is unique in that the contract is with a private corporation rather than a public institution. Lange said the city of Kirksville originally proposed the idea to help Kraft Heinz secure more workers. When the contract was first proposed, Kraft had over 100 unfilled positions due to the low unemployment rate in Kirksville.
“Kraft is the number one employer in our community, and so helping partner with Kraft so that they are able to be successful is really important, and I think that this program is helping them get really good workers,” said Lange.
The residents were required to pass both Kraft Heinz and Truman background checks before they were allowed to live on campus, and Kraft was responsible for paying for their room and board. The students participated in a one-credit hour class that Tyana Lange and President Sue Thomas taught. The goal of the class and the program at large was to acclimate the students to life in Kirksville as they sought a better education and life.
“I think it represents who Truman is,” said President Thomas. “We talk about the power of education and the power of access and the ability to pursue goals and to make life better, and that’s exactly what this program is. For those who participate in it, it’s a chance to have a better life for their family.”
Indeed, Lange said several students, both in past cohorts and in the current cohort, had to leave their families behind to participate in this program. Thomas noted that recently, a participant of the first cohort, Nicholus Tuioletai, was able to bring his wife and four children to live in Kirksville. Tuioletai said he was originally from American Samoa and moved to Hawaii in 2010 and that he heard about the program on Indeed. In his six months at the plant, he has moved from a tier one cutter/peeler on the line to a tier three team leader, and his children are enrolled in the Kirksville school district.
“It’s just been great to meet people like Tyana and President Sue,” said Tuioletai. “My goal now is to bring more islanders here.”
After the success of the first nine students, of which Tuioletai was a part, a second group of three students stayed over the summer interim. This semester, Centennial is housing seven new workers. The three students of the second cohort also live in Centennial. Thomas said Kraft Heinz will again pay for the students’ room and board. Thomas said that some of the students in this semester’s cohort are relatives of past participants. They became interested in the program after hearing about its success.
“It took the first cohort to be able to say this was for real,” Thomas said. “That it was actually working the way people said it was working. I think now that they’re sharing that information, they have more people who are comfortable coming.”
Thomas said she is glad the program is working so well and that families are beginning to move here. Lange said that a big benefit of the program was how flexible it was, and that it could be adjusted to fit the needs of each cohort. One thing that has not changed, Thomas said, is the one-credit hour class that all the students participate in. The first class session took place September 1 at 11:30 a.m. The time and day of the classes have changed with each cohort according to their work schedule at the plant. Lange said the students of this cohort are currently working 40 hours a week at the Kraft Heinz plant, so the university scheduled the classes around their work schedule. .
Thomas and Lange will continue to teach the class this semester. Lange said the program used to help acclimate international students to campus was used as a foundation. From there, Lange and Thomas have added content on financial literacy, renting a house, insurance benefits, and the cycle of change. Lucas Fischer, a counselor with the university counseling services, also leads a session about breaking bad habits.
“The class is designed to help them transition, both to Truman and Kirksville, but it’s also an opportunity for them to have face-to-face conversations with us just to make sure that there’s nothing they’re having struggles with,” said Lange. “I work in higher ed because I know that education changes lives, and this is a different form of that because, while it’s only one class and not a degree, the class is truly setting these students up to be successful members of the Kirksville community, and it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Both Lange and Thomas said that the program benefits the university as it brings a new level of diversity to campus. Lange said that, though the workers are not sitting in classes with students, they meet new people at the rec, the dining halls, and elsewhere on campus. Lange said volunteers and student ambassadors have been commissioned to give the students tours and help them navigate campus. Thomas and Lange said there is no end date for the program. The contract between Kraft Heinz and the university stipulates that either party can withdraw from the agreement at any time; however, Thomas said that as long as there is a need and the program continues to be a success, the university will continue to house and teach the workers.
“They’re an amazingly inspiring group,” Thomas said. “You get to hear their stories, understand why they’ve come here, and what it means to them to be here, so it’s really very inspiring.”
The decision to close Centennial Hall for renovations was announced in December of 2021. When the decision was first announced, Jamie Von Boxel, director of residence life, told the Index that Centennial was the least popular residence hall among students at the time of the press release. When closing the hall, the plan was to install new windows in the building and inspect the hall’s electrical capacity. The University’s physical plant determined that the hall could not sustain both individual air conditioning units for all the dorm rooms and micro-fridges and other large electronics during the school year. Thomas said that the window replacement renovations have been halted for several reasons. Immediately following the COVID-19 outbreak, the window prices increased dramatically, and, since the university does not have much of a need for Centennial as of now, as there are not enough students enrolled to justify opening the building, the renovations were postponed. Dave Rector, vice president for administration,
finance, and planning, said over email that the university has not pursued upgrading the electrical system of Centennial because the housing capacity was not needed. Rector said if students required an AC unit for health reasons, one would be provided. At the time of the press release, Centennial was slated to be opened in the 2024-2025 school year, but Thomas said that the building would likely only house Kraft Heinz students for now.