RSDP students serve communities across Greater Minnesota
Across the state of Minnesota, University of Minnesota students serve communities and make connections between hands-on community-based projects and their own academic pursuits. As part of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships’ (RSDP) mission to connect community needs with University resources, students’ energy, passion, and burgeoning skill sets provide fuel for many RSDP projects. Between 2016 and 2017, RSDP worked with more than 60 students, enrolled at all five University of Minnesota campuses.
Connecting students to community needs
Students engage in RSDP projects through multiple pathways, depending on their campus and if they are an undergraduate or a graduate student. The Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota Morris (UMM) partners with the Southwest and Central RSDP regions through the Connecting Students and Communities Program. This program aims to assist rural communities with self-identified projects that also create opportunities for UMM undergraduate students to contribute to these communities and build their own skills. Students work on a wide range of projects, from understanding the local food system, to biological field studies of reptiles, to supporting downtown development efforts.
At the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), students can apply to participate in the Sustainable Development Research Opportunity Program (SDROP), co-directed by faculty member Mike Mageau and Northeast RSDP Executive Director Okey Ukaga. Students are matched with local community and University partners. For example, Elizabeth Bushaw, a UMD student in Urban and Regional Studies graduating this fall, helped Churches United In Ministry (CHUM) work toward community resilience by organizing a community meeting for residents to discuss housing, transportation, economic opportunities and open spaces with local politicians. Bushaw described it as “an eye-opening experience. I had no idea what went into organizing an event like that. It is inspiring to see people from around the community coming together in order to make sure our policies reflect our values and represent all of us, not just some.”
On some projects, students work in partnership with University faculty. This summer, Joe Polacek, a Humphrey School of Public Affairs Urban and Regional Planning graduate student on the Twin Cities campus, worked with the Thief River Falls Downtown Development Association to support current businesses and encourage new business development, under the guidance of Virajita Singh, Senior Research Fellow at the College of Design Center for Sustainable Building Research and Assistant Vice Provost, Office for Equity and Diversity. “The ability to work in both community engagement and urban design has been fantastic,” Polacek said. “On large-scale maps, we asked small groups to map assets, liabilities and their aspirations for the downtown area. People were engaged, and the information we gained was invaluable.”
RSDP’s Mary J. Page Community-University Partnerships Fund supports students working on projects in Greater Minnesota in collaboration with the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) Community Assistantship Program (CAP). This fund honors the contributions of former University of Minnesota Regent Mary J. Page to Minnesota and her commitment to RSDP and rural communities through citizen-driven initiatives.
Claire Stoscheck’s 2016 project with United Acres is one project supported by the Mary Page fund. While a graduate student at the Humphrey School, Stoscheck provided organizational development support for the United Acres community garden in Olivia, which aims to increase the availability and affordability of fresh fruit and vegetables to the people of Renville County and the surrounding area. “I [learned] about what is possible when different public, private and nonprofit partners come together to promote healthy eating and sustainable agriculture in Greater Minnesota. RSDP is a great place to learn about innovative strategies to promote sustainable development across the state,” Stoscheck said. Contributions to the Mary Page fund will continue to help rural communities through student projects in the years to come.
Another project supported by the Mary Page fund this summer is a partnership with the Cedar Lake Ambassadors to develop an actionable lake management plan for the restoration of Cedar Lake of Rice County. Cole Reagan, a graduate student in Water Resources Science, has been identifying lake monitoring data that needs to be gathered. He’s working with computer models to help with the analysis. Reagan considers the community interaction as one of the project’s highlights. “It has been nice to work with the Cedar Lake Ambassadors and a community that is passionate about identifying steps necessary to restore Cedar Lake,” he said.
Leveraging student passion for local communities
Elizabeth Braatz is a familiar name to RSDP newsletter readers. As a Student Writer/Communications Assistant for the statewide RSDP office, Braatz wrote many articles highlighting the work of individuals and projects across the state, including this month’s profile of Deep Winter Greenhouse pioneer Carol Ford. Braatz said she was drawn to RSDP when she was an undergraduate student in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management looking for a student position where she could both gain skills and help an organization. As she refined her interviewing and writing skills at RSDP, she found inspiration from the community members who shared their stories. “There are so many amazing people working at or with RSDP,” Braatz said. “I had a wonderful time working as a newsletter writer learning their stories and sharing those stories so that we can continue to inspire future work as well give recognition where it is very much deserved.”
Humphrey School student Patrick Roisen worked with the Micronesian community in Milan to address issues related to immigration and pathways to citizenship. This project included legal research, community outreach, and advocating with elected officials in Minnesota and Washington, D.C. Roisen created a citizenship reference document to be used by the Micronesian community. This project was also supported by the Mary Page fund. Roisen said he was inspired by “incredibly determined and involved community members” and recommends RSDP projects to fellow students who are passionate about “social change, justice, and working closely with diverse and vibrant communities.”
Kelly Fischer, a UMM student who graduated this spring with a degree in Environmental Science, found learning from the people she interacted with on the Southwest RSDP board to be one of the highlights of her three years of working with RSDP. Fischer said she appreciated her role in the natural resources work group as one “beyond student work, contributing to conversation instead of just observing.” She found her interdisciplinary work to be supported by the professionals available at the West Central Research and Outreach Center and in communities. According to Fischer, this work supported a growth cycle: her work at RSDP helped her personal growth, which in turn helped her grow in her professional skills, which then helped her become more proficient in her work. Fischer also contributed to the region by creating a guide for communities to assess the feasibility of solar for heating community pools. Fischer was recognized for her work with the local communities as the University of Minnesota Morris Community Engagement Student Award Winner and recipient of the Minnesota Campus Compact Presidents’ Student Leadership Award.
Matt Grimley, pursuing a Master’s degree in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy at the Humphrey School, worked alongside undergraduate student Christopher Giavarini supporting solar capacity for schools as living laboratories. They teamed together on a project supported by RSDP’s Central region to understand the opportunities and challenges of solar implementation and make recommendations. Grimley said, “I learned that education and policy remain essential to equitable change in the slow-to-change world of energy.” He advised other students considering an RSDP project, “If you want a deep dive on why projects matter to people and how they get implemented, this is your jam.”
Building future leaders
Community projects help students solidify skills they can use in their future careers, from time management and organization, to learning how to give and get feedback. Other skills are discipline-dependent, such as researching agricultural markets, GIS-mapping or leading focus groups.
Colombia native Isabel Marsh has found her work supporting RSDP’s program evaluation under the guidance of Assistant Statewide Director Caryn Mohr to complement her Humphrey School Master’s of Development Practice program, where she studies the range of agricological systems, theories of development, and research. Marsh feels strongly that “everything is reinforcing because everything is connected. I can gain insights from here and bring them to my education, and bring insights from my education and apply them here in my work.” Marsh describes RSDP as a connecting organization, serving as a bridge between communities and academia that brings people together to work on a common goal.
Students also benefit from a unique exposure to the communities in Minnesota. Kate Svitavsky, a Twin Cities-based public policy graduate student at the Humphrey School, has been working in the Northwest RSDP region on a project to increase both resident and tourist use of the Red Lake River through infrastructure improvements and community engagement. When asked what she enjoys about her project, Svitavsky describes more than just refining her skills in planning, branding and grant writing. “I love traveling and hearing others’ stories, so working with the Extension office and these cities has been great because I’m talking to a lot of people and realizing how much collaboration happens in this region,” she said. “Residents here are so invested in and proud of their communities, and that creates a lot of energy to do cool things—like the project I'm working on.”
Chris Gass, a UMD student who participated in SDROP in 2016, sees the opportunity to work on a hands-on project as a stepping stone for his future. His project included the design and implementation of a waste audit in partnership with the UMD Office of Sustainability. “First and foremost, what was exciting was my growth, and my development of connections with professionals in the field,” he said. Gass is originally from the St. Cloud area and plans to work in Greater Minnesota because of the opportunity he sees in smaller communities. "There’s a lot of opportunity to have your work show and climb up the ladder—being able to see your own impact [and have] more opportunity for your work to be recognized by the community.”
Learning from students
Students bring valuable skills to build community partners’ capacities. Aaron Job, who completed his degree in Journalism last year with an emphasis on video production, created an educational video for the Southeast Minnesota Wastewater Initiative for the Cannon River Watershed Partnership (CRWP). Job was able to apply his academic experience while he learned about wastewater in the watershed. He found learning to be a two-way street. “A major highlight was the opportunity to direct and steer the project,” he said. “A lot of the people at CRWP had never worked with video before, so it was a unique learning experience on both sides.”
Virajita Singh, a long-time partner of RSDP and the faculty who worked with Polacek on the Thief River Falls Downtown Development Association project, described the two-way learning that occurs through RSDP projects as a “win-win.” In Singh’s words, “Communities love hearing creative ideas of students and working with them. Students receive valuable real-world experience and learn how to work to solve complex problems in partnership with a community. Time and again, I hear from the students as they graduate and find good positions in their fields in Minnesota and beyond the state that the community-engaged work they did with us, shared in their application and interviews, was key to their getting the job. It’s a wonderful feeling to realize the good that comes from this kind of work, all around.”
In the words of RSDP Assistant Statewide Director Caryn Mohr, who has supervised both Braatz and Marsh, “Students bring fresh perspectives to our work and continually challenge us to think about new ways of operating. I often find myself hoping they learn at least as much from me as I do from them.”