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Travels Across North Dakota with UND
North Dakota is a wide open state covering over 69,000 square miles. It is rural with approximately 10 in comparison to 90 persons per square mile, the average U.S. population density. From Grand Forks to Tioga is nearly 300 miles one way. But, to get acquainted with North Dakota and its educational needs really requires a boots-on-the-ground journey to meet people face-to-face, up close and personal. After all, it is the people of North Dakota that are the heart and soul of the state. It was with this desire in mind that UND top administrators including President Kelly, Provost DiLorenzo, College Deans Hill (Education), Storrs (Arts & Sciences), and El-Rewini (Engineering) and other UND administrators and faculty boarded a bus and headed out for Tioga, North Dakota oil country, via many stops along the way with the goal of listening, sharing ideas, and appreciating the value of the state through the residents of the towns and cities along the way. This including short stops in Fordville, Devils Lake, Rugby, Minot, Stanley, Tioga, New Town, and Velva to name a few.
What did we learn from this trip? How did it shape our vision of public and higher education? How did it impact our views of the role that the University of North Dakota plays in helping communities state-wide?
Our first stop was Fordville, a small town of no more than 200 people. Tiny in relation to other cities even in the state of North Dakota, Fordville was our first impression of small town North Dakota. Lutheran Church pastor Matt Masko and wife, Meganne Masko who is an assistant professor of music therapy at UND, fed and treated us as if we were the most important persons to ever visit Fordville in its history. We were treated to a baroque concert where the pastor played the piano and Meganne sang an aria. Fordville set the tone for our trip, demonstrating the vitality and a strong sense of community that resonates across small towns in North Dakota.
From Fordville we traveled to Fort Totten at Spirit Lake to visit Cankdeska Cikana Community College and were greeted by the President Cynthia Lindquist an alumna of UND. Here the spirit of our tribal neighbors was strong and we learned how education was central in helping the Spirit Lake Nation improve their quality of life and contribute to their tribe and state. Issue of childcare and early childhood education were uppermost in the mind of President Lindquist and she had recently succeeded in building and staffing a very high quality early childhood education center within the community college context. Residents of the area were actively engaged in the early childhood center and it was President Lindquist's view that this was an important first step towards building a caring community through education and values building.
Business and energy expansion is a strength of the state and this was clear from many of the sites we visited and the employees and employers who interacted with us. Northrop Grumman Plant and Whiting Oil in New Town were impressive. Kathy Neset, President of Neset Consulting in Tioga provided a comprehensive overview of oil and geological exploration and innovative practices for extracting oil from this energy rich region. The impact of discovery and exploration and the building of an energy-centric infrastructure were visible and palpable. At the same time, however, an impressive effort was underway in business and industry to work cooperatively with the state in an ecological friendly manner. We learned of the efforts to minimize the impact on the environment and achieve both the goal of energy production and capital expansion, while at the same time building communities and preserving the environment.
Public education was on the minds of everyone we met. Schools are expanding, children need to get access to educational services, and those with special learning needs deserve extra attention. There are issues of transportation, public school building construction and maintenance, and finding ways to attract the best teachers and education leaders to this part of the state. We discussed ideas that might work towards solutions to some of these perplexing challenges, many of which are common issues across rural America and especially in a rapidly expanding energy growth sector of the country.
On our return back across the state we were delighted to view the extensive and varied wildlife including buffalo and all manner of fowl and fauna and experience the deep values embedded in Scandinavian and Nordic heritage. This was evident from Stav Churches to the regional food delicacies offered to us by Liz Gjellstad which we sampled at the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot. At Rugby North Dakota we toured the Heart of America Medical Center and learned about their recent national award for health outcomes despite the challenges of substantial distance and transportation barriers that many of their patients face. From there we toured along Sully's Hill National Game Preserve near Devils Lake and finally returned through Turtle Rivers State Park, less than 20 miles from Grand Forks.
It was helpful for us to see the extensive reach of the state, particularly as now we watch all the UND entering students with their parents moving into the dorms and apartments. Many students were from the Western reaches of North Dakota and in the near future will be our alumni. They will return to their rural communities with skills, knowledge, and abilities they develop through their UND educational experiences. Our big takeaway is discovering a state that is eager to engage through personal interchange. We recognize the responsibility we have as higher education leaders to facilitate the future of each community we visited on our Western North Dakota bus trip.
Hesham El Rewini