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Engaging with the community

By Jessica Moes '14
May 24, 2012

Visiting Assistant Professor of History Eric Fure-Slocum, left, and Professor of Art and Art History Meg Ojala stand in front of some of the photos their students took as part of a collaborative project examining engaged citizenship. Photo by Nathan Jacobi.

For many first-year students, moving to college is an overwhelming experience.

"When I came to St. Olaf, I was very focused on setting my life up here on campus," says Raymond Dickson '15. "I think I forgot that I wasn't just moving into a new school, but that I was also moving into a new city."

Dickson, along with other students in a first-year American Conversations course taught by Visiting Assistant Professor of History Eric Fure-Slocum and both Associate Professor of English Colin Wells and Visiting Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies Megan Feeney, was quickly reminded otherwise with the introduction of a yearlong class project.

"My goal was to get them involved in the Northfield community, to set them up with the key players here to help them engage in this new transition," says Fure-Slocum. "I wanted to create a project that is substantial and meaningful, that permeates everything we learn in class while making it relevant to where we are now."

Fure-Slocum developed this project, officially titled "Civic Stories: Engaged Citizenship," in conjunction with American Conversations alumni Laura Romeyn '12 and Ben Golden '12. The project connected first-year American Conversation students with prominent members of the Northfield community, many of them Ole alumni. The students and community members had in-depth conversations, culminating after the first semester with a lengthy interview about what it means to be a member of the Northfield community and why voting is so important to citizenship. They then had to condense these interviews into a length that they could share with their fellow classmates.

"I found myself wishing that people would be willing to listen to the whole 45-minute interview," says Denzel Belin '15, who worked with the Reverend Dennis Dempsey of St. Dominic's Catholic Church. "Trying to condense what he had to say in a 3-5 minute piece almost feels like no matter how hard we try, something important will get lost."

Students displayed some of their photos of community leaders during a recent Academic Civic Engagement Showcase held in Buntrock Commons. Photo by Thomas Dunning '15

Teaming up with photographers
During the spring semester, students from Professor of Art and Art History Meg Ojala's photography class teamed up with these American Conversation students and their community mentors. Together, they created a short photo essay, combining the audio from the interviews the American Conversation students had conducted and photographs taken by the art students. These photo essays, inspired by the New York Times One in 8 Million project, will serve as a tool that the Northfield League of Women Voters will use to promote voting and civic engagement in the local community.

"I hope my photos accurately convey Father Dempsey's involvement and contribution to the Hispanic community in Northfield," notes Alexandra Meyer '12, who worked with the pastor and a small group of American Conversation students, including Belin, Nadia Baka ‘15, and Lauren Bazzachini '15.

"The things Father Dempsey had to say about voting was especially meaningful," she says. "As a priest, and as a community member, he tries to vote more by principles and values than by political parties, and works especially hard to make sure that his contribution is beneficial for his whole community, not just himself."

A lasting impact
The project has also affected the day-to-day life of some of the students like Bayley Flint '15, who worked with city council member Rhonda Anderson Pownell '93. 

"With our paths colliding for a small moment, she has had a lasting impression on how I have spent my free time this year," says Flint. "She connected me to the LINK Center in downtown Northfield, where I now volunteer every week."

Other community members, including city council members, heads of local service organizations, and past state legislators, were just as impressed with the students.

"I have learned that these students have a perspective on community, and that where they come from is already well-developed," says Sandra Gerdes '83, executive director of Laura Baker Services Association. "These students are bright and curious. It's as important for me to dig beneath the surface with them as it is for them to dig beneath the surface with me."

The students recently presented their finished photo essays in Buntrock Commons part of the Academic Civic Engagement Showcase. 

"It's important to remember that no matter what size community you have come from, or what size community you will head off to, you should become involved in helping shape and direct the community in some way," says Raymond Cox '73, owner of the Northfield Construction Company and a former member of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

"As students, we have an active role in the community that we tend to forget about," adds Dickson. "While we're here for four years, we're still a huge part of the Northfield population, and our contributions should matter."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or