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Taking class research into the community

By Kari VanDerVeen
June 2, 2011

Austin Bly '12 (center) talks with a community member about the poster he and other students in the Immigration and Citizenship class at St. Olaf created to show the complexity of immigrant services in Faribault. Photos by Nate Jacobi.

Like many students across campus, members of Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak's Immigration and Citizenship class presented the findings of their research at the end of the semester.

But their audience wasn't other students and faculty members — it was residents of Faribault, Minnesota, a town 20 miles south of St. Olaf College that was at the heart of their research.

Tegtmeyer Pak's political science class spent the semester interviewing community leaders in Faribault about its immigrant population and services. They then shared what they learned with the community during the last week of class in a presentation that drew nearly 60 people. The St. Olaf students discussed the five themes that emerged during their interviews with community leaders:

  • Services and resources
  • Organization and immigrant community connections in Faribault
  • Communication issues
  • Education and diversity
  • Economic issues facing immigration in Faribault

Sorting through the data they gathered impressed upon the students the complexity of immigrant services in Faribault, especially given the variety of immigrant populations, noted Lisa Drewry '12 in her presentation. "We found that some service organizations network with only one immigrant group, even though most of those organizations provide services that would be useful to all immigrants," Drewry said.

The Sudanese community in Faribault, for example, is much less connected to most service providers than the Somali or Latino communities. It is, however, very strongly connected to a few service providers, she noted.

Another obstacle, noted Isak Tranvik '11, is that different immigrant groups were often working toward different goals — making it difficult for community leaders to respond to all concerns.

St. Olaf Associate Professor of Political Science Kathy Tegtmeyer Pak kicks off a presentation to community members in Faribault.

These findings and many more will be included in a comprehensive written report that will be compiled this summer by Maria Ward '12 and Taryn Arbeiter '12. They'll work on the report with the support of Tegtmeyer Pak, an associate professor of political science, and the St. Olaf Center for Undergraduate Research and Inquiry.

Tegtmeyer Pak says she designed the project for this academic civic engagement course after talking to the leaders of a number of nonprofit organizations in Rice County and St. Olaf Associate Director of Civic Engagement Nate Jacobi. Those conversations led her to partner with the local United Way to examine immigration and integration in Faribault.

"The topic closely follows from the academic content of the class, which always includes readings about local-level institutions and immigrant incorporation," says Tegtmeyer Pak. "My own early research, in graduate school and after, focused on similar issues in Japan, and I've wanted to try something like this in the U.S. with students for a long time."

Students learned about Faribault in class, both through readings and from a guest lecture by Professor Katherine Fennelly with the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, who has worked considerably with the community. Yet a number of students pointed out that the hands-on learning opportunities the class provided helped them learn about far more than the community and immigration.

Sara Padula '11 says one of the most important things she learned from the project was how to conduct an interview. "It's not about just being able to speak to people, but being able to really listen to them," she says, noting that the skills will come in handy this upcoming year while she performs her Fulbright research in Japan.


Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or