American Essence

One-of-a-Kind Mechanical Trade School Helps Students Grow Through Faith and Humanities

An education where faith and academic growth go hand in hand
BY Krista Thomas TIMEJune 1, 2022 PRINT

What do an air hammer, a student, and the Greek philosopher Plato have in common?

They are all part of an education that, as Plato puts it, teaches “children to desire the right things.”

At Harmel Academy of the Trades, on the picturesque campus of Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the all-male student body studies more than just hydraulics and pneumatics or troubleshooting machinery.

The postsecondary institute’s founders have every hope that their coursework encourages each student to grow in holiness, to appreciate the inherent value and dignity of his work.

Students like Matthew Asselin relish a technical type of hands-on training to hone their future craft. Asselin, along with five others, will graduate this spring from a unique trade school that specializes in machine and systems technologies—and the humanities.

With readings rooted in the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and Plato, from German philosopher Josef Pieper to acclaimed Christian theologian C.S. Lewis, Harmel Academy students receive a highly impactful education that builds on the beautiful, the good, and the true.

“We read these different books, and some of them have nothing to do with what [trades] we’re learning,” said Matthew. “Then we go into class, and the paragraphs and chapters relate to what we are doing. We don’t think about the connections until we are able to understand how much our faith really plays a part in our everyday lives. What I learned two semesters ago still figures into what I’m learning today.”

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Harmel Academy founders Ryan Pohl (L) and Brian Black. (Rob Schumaker and Faith Magazine)

Students spend their Tuesdays and Thursdays in class, where the readings play out at work. “It’s incredible. I think what this program does well is how the humanities classes change how you think about things, and [the program] teaches you the reason why work is good and fruitful,” Matthew added.

The school’s president, Brian Black, projects that Harmel Academy’s philosophy will help direct young men to become more fully what God created them to be.

“In a culture where this generation of men have little to no support, to be legitimately and authentically masculine, to learn an affirming technical skill or trade, and to create a really strong foundation for them to build a family, a career, and their own business—that’s what Harmel is all about.”

Incorporating the humanities is a unique yet necessary educational element under the direction of school founders Ryan Pohl and Brian Black. What once started as a dream six years prior became a reality for both when the academy’s doors opened to students in 2020.

“What we have done is analyze the intangible parts of being human,” stated Black. “The key thing we focus on is developing the imagination, to think creatively about our place in creation and see broad things in the challenges of life.”

He explains that while virtues are something that can be practiced, they might not be learned in a machine class except by accident. Developing Christian ideals in a work environment is key to growing as a better person and discovering how to be fully human.

“Over the course of two years, our instruction in the humanities integrates all the conventional areas of focus, including history, theology, philosophy, the arts, and theater. We integrate virtues thematically in class so that our students can see these themes in their own lives, can know how to understand them, and can find support to grow virtuously.”

Black admits that Harmel Academy exists in a spirit of academic freedom to explore topics that benefit the students most. For persistence and diligence, students might read the dangerous tale of British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s search for the South Pole in “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.” For the virtues of fortitude and courage, students learn how to address fear, reading from examples of brave men or theological truths from the Bible.

“We are not hindered by a rigid and calcified structure in education. Postsecondary education, with exceptions, is not innovative. [At Harmel,] it costs 10K per year for tuition. Students work at a job three days per week so that they can earn a wage and apply to school tuition, or they can invest or use for living expenses. Our students live in dedicated dorms and have a standard college experience. We are a lot more intentional in our approach,” Black added.

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Students eagerly engage in their three- day-a-week, hands-on training. (Harmel Academy)

Intentional approaches hearken to the ideas of the French industrialist Léon Harmel, for whom the academy is named. Serving as a source of inspiration for the founders, faculty, and students, Harmel treated his own factory workers justly and fairly under Catholic Christian principles. He successfully and intentionally improved conditions for industrial workers in the late 1800s: paying a just wage, offering benefits, and providing safe conditions.

And labor these eager students do—to the tune of three days a week in a hands-on laboratory environment. Here, they tear apart, repair, rebuild, and make adjustments to machinery donated by regional industrial and manufacturing companies. Or, in the field, they flourish in the craft under supervision as apprentices. And like other residential colleges, the students experience living, working, learning, training, and praying in community. It is an experience that Black said is at the heart of character formation. Harmel strives to build a culture where workers are valued not only for their technical skills but also for their integrity and dedication.

“We call this the Gospel of Work,” said Black. “It is not only a practical mission, but a personal mission. We work all day, every day, growing closer to God and closer to your classmates living in community. They learn to communicate with each other in a healthy, constructive, honest way, holding each other accountable to the goals they pledged when they joined the Harmel community.”

Harmel is a place where students are encouraged to allow their natural affinities to flourish.

“We don’t direct it in the same way as summer camp. They can take this experience and give back and commit to and sacrifice for this invisible thing called family. They learn such grounded habits to make them more excellent people, husbands, fathers, and workers,” added Black.

The personal and intellectual growth Theresa Asselin has witnessed in her son Matthew is priceless. “He has grown into the most amazing young man, and I feel he is ready to serve God in the world through his work and with those he is in community with,” said the Holland, Michigan, resident. “He is taking chances and learning not to be afraid of failure where so many are so afraid to fail in this culture.”

The future Machine Maintenance Technology graduate has experienced an educational focus “that honors your relationship with God,” she added. “The focus is God and your faith: your faith in community with others, your faith in a family, and faith in the workplace. This experience has students understanding what it looks like to be a man of integrity and witness in the world.”

Harmel was the answer the Asselin family sought for Matthew, who was seeking something different from the typical college experience. Humanities wasn’t exactly what Matthew was seeking, yet Theresa recalled how Matthew had memorized a poem from class, and how the students had learned firsthand on a road trip excursion what the piece of poetry was conveying.

“I love what they are learning, discussing, and reading,” Theresa stated. “It goes to show how intentional they are at Harmel in what they are teaching, in what they ask of the students. … It’s amazing.”

They make routine visits to regional companies in order to discover what skills are needed to be successful. “They discover why the trades are dying, and why they need to be reborn,” she added. “We need people in the trades!”

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At Harmel, teaching virtue and skill goes hand in hand.(Rob Shumaker)

Harmel Academy’s numerous applicants have spurred the founders to create a new, one-year program where young men who have graduated high school can discover if their calling is in the trades. In fact, according to Black, the last living shop teacher in Michigan is helping to develop the program, which will include intense exposure in carpentry, metal fabrication, electrical, HVAC, automation, and home maintenance.

“People realize it is a mistake not to have shop experience. We are left with a generation of men who have not had regular exposure to working with their hands in the material world. There’s a hole there, and we are trying to fix that. It is an opportunity to fill the gap,” Black said.

Grants from The Charles Koch Foundation, and donations from other entities, keep the ingenuity of Harmel’s programming on track and helping students reach their potential.

Be it in the one-year or two-year track, Harmel’s training is often the impetus for students to start a career in the trades. However, if that is not the case, said Black, “we will equip them with skills they need as husbands and fathers. They will not only know what a furnace is and where to find it, but how to change the filter. They will know how to back a trailer, how to use a fire extinguisher, or change an outlet in the wall.”

The intentional mission of Harmel Academy of the Trades resonates with the founders, faculty, students, and supporters. As Black puts it, Harmel is small, industrious, and entrepreneurial, with creative people who know how to direct students well and can connect students with opportunities in the workplace.

“What is most exciting is that there are a lot of excellent men who just need direction and encouragement. We do not go with the ‘all is lost’ mentality. With 20-plus excellent young men, we give them the direction that our culture has not been able to give.”

Graduating high school, Matthew Asselin did not exactly have an idea of what career path he might take. Like many young men, he had little time to explore careers while keeping up with academics in high school. Yet Harmel was the answered prayer.

Matthew knows how to buy and use various tools, how to build a gravity table, and how to weld safely. With this program, caring instructors guide students through the process of learning on the job. His classmates helped repurpose an old computer lab to create an oratory.

Matthew enjoys being hands-on, taking things apart, and putting them back together. And to think that this may be a successful career path pleases not only him, but also his parents and his instructors. It is a realized desire for the right things.

“For a lot of us guys, we come here for the whole reason to work and learn,” he said. “But that’s not what society is teaching today. Harmel helps us get back to the basics of how we are called to work—and how fruitful that is for our society and as children of God.”

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.

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