Lauren Solkowski is a first year student at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and a student worker at CST. In this post, she reflects on her experience of moving to a small town in rural Minnesota, as well as the history of the area that she has learned through her project with CST.
Two years ago, if you would have asked me where I would be going to school, rural Minnesota would have never crossed my mind. Living in a city of approximately 36,000 people in northeastern Wisconsin, I never thought an amazing college would exist in a city smaller than that. Yet, here I am. Despite the friends and family assiduously asking me where in the world the University of Minnesota Morris is, this place is truly a jewel among thorns. I recently completed my first semester and I have no regrets.
The diction and word choice is definitely different—my first day I made the mistake of asking where the bubbler is and it took a few people to explain to me what the difference was between a casserole and a hotdish… But regardless, I enjoy being exposed to what Minnesota has to offer. Even though I’m only one state over, it feels like a different world. The use of renewable energy and composting continues to amaze me. Upon visiting, I immediately noticed that the citizens of Morris and staff of the university truly care about the environment. The wind turbines are my absolute favorite—walking to the wind turbines for the first time was amazing. I could see the extending prairie landscapes and smell the clean air (for the most part…sometimes the smell of cow manure is overpowering). Also, one thing unique to rural Minnesota is the Center for Small Towns. I am currently employed with the Center and within my first semester I have learned the rich history and bright future of many rural communities.
A sense of community is created at the Center for Small Towns unlike any other. The University of Minnesota Morris and the surrounding small towns team together to create a complete and supportive community. However, I do not work directly with community members, I help Dr. Gross, a history professor at UMM, to digitize microfilm and to read The Morris Sun and The Morris Tribune for his research. Digitizing sounds fancy, but I basically scan and save microfilm documents. Dr. Gross has been researching the Native American boarding schools throughout North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota.
Through reading the newspapers (starting back in 1887), I am learning what rural newspapers would report on and how the boarding schools were represented by the community. Most of the newspapers report any events or travelers to and from Morris as well as any noteworthy national and international news. My favorite section of the paper, “Accidental Happenings,” always elicits a laugh or smile as people find themselves in weird situations, such as being on fire or struck by lightning. In regard to the boarding school, the only time the Sisters of Mercy, the administrators of the boarding school in Morris, are ever mentioned is when the school first opened and when the school’s baseball team was competing. Dr. Gross claims that many community members did not value the school because it was run by women and the majority of the students were young women and Native American. However, the baseball team, composed only of men, became worthy enough to be in the paper.
Through many hours with the microfilm machine, I have learned more about this part of the country, specifically the history of the Native American boarding school that was present on campus over one hundred years ago. The boarding school closed in 1909 and the State of Minnesota converted the boarding school into an agricultural high school in 1910 with the promise of free tuition to Native American students. Today at UMM, the State of Minnesota still grants free tuition to all Native American students. The more I learn about UMM, the more I appreciate being a student on campus.
My job also includes, to an extent, learning about individuals living in rural Minnesota. I have spent time watching Postcards (on Pioneer Public Television) and reading various articles produced by Minnesota Public Radio. Through the videos, what becomes blatantly obvious is the fact that people living in rural Minnesota don’t regret for a second that they don’t live in the Twin Cities area. Not that urban living is a bad thing, but rather a different perspective on living. In rural Minnesota, people have found that raising a family, starting a business, and possessing a strong sense of community is always prominent. Several artists have appeared on the show. Some work with fabric, others jewelry, others painting. There is no end to the creative mind in rural living. Many families are rich in culture, history, and the past practices of the area. Traditions of music, wood carving, and art serve as reminders of the past.
Of course, rural communities also face hardships that those in urban areas don’t need to worry about. Some communities see schools closing, factories closing, no police force, or not enough money to maintain roads. This issues are brought to discussion in the MPR article “Fighting for an American Countryside.” Articles such as this aid me as a non-native to see the issues facing my new community and beyond. However, the Center for Small Towns hopes to help these rural communities grow and face any issue. All over Minnesota and the country are community leaders completely invested in their towns. The Center takes the time to communicate with community leaders and businesses to become aware of what projects we could help with. All staff and student workers are committed to creating a bright future in rural communities.
Being away from home is hard, but the community members of Morris and UMM (and by extension the Center for Small Towns) help me feel comfortable in this new environment. Through my newly acquired knowledge of rural Minnesota, I feel so fortunate to be a part of this close knit community and university.