Posted at 4:38 AM on January 21, 2009
by Bob Collins
Update 10:26 a.m. - I've made it, with the last 50 miles minus any blue fluid for the windshield.
Posted at 10:54 AM on January 21, 2009
by Than Tibbetts
If yesterday seemed an important and historic day, you'll probably remember where you were when you witnessed it.
But of what you witnessed, what will you remember? What images will stick with you 10, 20 years from now?16 Comments)
Posted at 6:31 PM on January 21, 2009
by Bob Collins
Jeff Swanson, 52, a native of the Des Moines area misses Sunday mornings. But those days are gone. Swanson, a Lutheran pastor for about 20 years, says he's got a new calling now, and he's following it as a student at Vermilion Community College in Ely, where I met him on Wednesday as part of News Cut's Campus Tour.
Swanson is now enrolled in Vermilion's Natural Resources Technology Program, considered one of the best in the country. He'd like to get into forestry or wildlife management.
His decision to make a change "came at a place in my family life and personal life that it just seemed that while I always followed God's call to various places... that was leading me to natural resources."
He says the initial decision was hard; he had a "nervous breakdown" and quadruple bypass surgery "so the final decision to do something else, something different, and make a big change in my life was not very difficult and once the decision was made and the big dominoes started to fall for me."
"I miss Sunday mornings, I don't miss Tuesdays through Saturdays too much," he says.
He'd like to work with a group of people to manage a forest or a prairie restoration. Ideally, he says, he'd like to find something in Iowa or New Ulm, where his wife is staying while he's in Ely. They see each other once a month.
"I'm a big bison guy," he says. He and his wife travel around the region watching bison.
So, I had to ask. "What don't people know about bison?" And Swanson knows what you don't know... unless you knew that bison bones were used to make brown sugar back in the day.
"At one point in American history, there were between 50 and 70 million bison that roamed across the Plains. By 1888, we had reduced bison to a population of approximately 1,000. You would think there would be a lot of bison bones across the Prairie, but it was found that bison bones made good fuel in the making of brown sugar. Virtually every bison bone upon the land was exported to the Detroit area."
Swanson says he's got "big hopes" for the national economy turning around soon, maybe his pension account will regain some value. But he figures that's three years away.
As for his own economy: "My big concerns is finding a job and having a government willing to invest in natural resources." He found Barack Obama's inaugural address encouraging in this regard.
Swanson acknowledges that life at 52 isn't what he expected at age 5, that's when he first wanted to become a pastor. He thought he'd be a pastor of a large church, with a staff, living a comfortable life. "I'm missing the target," he said. "My goals are different. I want to be less successful and more happy." So far, so good, he says.
At Vermilion, he's surrounded by students younger than him. And he's got a message for them: "Do what makes you happy; you, not mom and dad and aunts and uncles. I became a pastor because of three blue-haired ladies in the front row at church. And I was a very good pastor but at the core of which is not what makes me happy and what makes me happy is nature, and outdoors."
Kristian Gaasland, a Hibbing native, has had three knee surgeries and "all kinds of other issues" with his body. "Too much jumping out of airplanes, and being a machine gunner in Iraq, bouncing around in the top of a Humvee," he says. He joined the Army to get out of Hibbing and because he likes the outdoors.
He's in the water quality program at Vermilion Community College in Ely and he wants to work in a wastewater treatment plan when he completes his coursework in a year, and gets a license.
There's something you don't hear a lot of kids say: "When I grow up I want to work in a water treatment plant."
"I came about it in a roundabout way. Because of Iraq, I don't like being around people as much as I used to so this gives me a route where I'm still doing something important but something where I won't have to deal with a large group of people or sitting in a cubicle farm all day typing on a computer," he told me on Wednesday. He went to the University of Minnesota Duluth but didn't like it because of class sizes. At Vermilion, he says, there are 10 people in his class.
How did he come up with his career path? On a lark, he decided to take a tour of some water treatment plants, "and every time I went there I noticed all the employees were older and getting ready to retire." It's an interesting fit in a bad economy, he says.
"I like the process of it because it's a little bit hands on compared to most jobs," he said. For example, someone's got to keep the bugs and protozoa that eats the waste alive and happy. "If you can handle the smell, it's not too bad," he says.
"They're still hiring at a decent rate," he says when I asked him about his economic outlook. Vermilion's job placement rate in the business is 98%. "Basically, if you want a job, you can have it." He figures Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan will lead to more plants being built and older ones replaced.
Not that the economic downturn hasn't stung. "My retirement fund I've been working since I was 18 has taken quite a hammering. There's recessions every once in awhile and you just have to go with the flow."
Which is his plan.1 Comments)
Posted at 7:57 PM on January 21, 2009
by Bob Collins
Katie Higsten, 22, is looking for her keystone species, a species which -- were it to become extinct -- would lead to the extinction of other forms of life. She'll probably end up researching such things in a warmer climate than Ely or even Minnesota. "When it gets to 60 below here, people get laid off," she told me during a visit at Vermilion Community College in Ely, where she enrolled in the wilderness management program.
"If you look at the ecological development of an area, what would be the most important. If something dies out as the result of another species? It continues up and down along the food chain. What species are being threated by global warming?"
The Montana native -- who's lived in Hibbing, Duluth and Woodbury -- obviously wants to know everything about nature and has a plan for learning it.
"I have so much school left," she said, just before I reminded her that we're supposed to look at things in little pieces. "If you think about the little pieces of every school I've done, I want to do history, archeology, and then move on to life sciences like biology and by then I will have a pretty good idea what species I want to specify and I want to go into ecology."
She just returned from a trip to Australia, where she and a colleague surveyed people about their role in the environment, but where she became fascinated with grasshoppers. "It was amazing to me the different grasshoppers that are around the world. They live in all the climates of the world. I don't think they'll be a keystone species, but they're interesting."
But they're not something she'll likely make a career out of. "Bugs are important, but at the same time they gross me out," she said.
She completed a two-year program at Vermilion in a year, and she still has more courses to take on her search for her career and her keystone species. That's where the economy has turned bruising for her.
"I had to take student loans for every class; I live off student loans. Because I did business school already, I was $10,000 in debt from Duluth Business University and when I am done here I'm going to be about $40,000 in debt," she says.
Her parents are worried about the banks, "especially since I took one out with Wells Fargo. I'm pretty much getting to the end of the line with what banks will lend to me."
She hopes to start working the Forest Service this summer, but probably not in Minnesota. "Everything up here is temporary."
Higsten doesn't see a disconnect between her outlook and the nation's as a whole. "I think my economy will work itself out. i try to manage my money as best I can. I think the economy as a whole is the same way. Bailing the banks out is the same way that they had the stimulus package for everyone. They sent us $300 and it was gone in a second. I don't know if that makes us a Socialist society, but that might not be a bad thing if it comes down to our survival. People are starting to understand they can't spend their money so frivolously and (should) enjoy the finer things in life because that's what life is all about. Some people haven't had that sink in yet."
Posted at 8:40 PM on January 21, 2009
by Bob Collins
David Walsh isn't like most American kids, which is partly attributable to the fact he's from Melbourne, Australia. He has a "what me worry" attitude, preferring to "test my boundaries and change things up," he said on Thursday at Vermilion Community College in Ely.
He says he wanted to see what it's like to live in a town of 3,000 people, and play basketball at the college there. The other day, he told me, some 4th graders stopped him in downtown Ely and asked to have their picture taken with him. As we chatted, other students walked by and waved at him. He knows everybody in Ely, it seems, which is something else considering that he knew nobody when he moved here.
It's summer right now in Australia. "I kept asking coach at the end of my e-mails, 'is it cold there?' and he never answered any of my questions," he said. It's an effective way for someone in Ely, Minnesota to attract a good basketball player from Melbourne.
He'd like to play basketball here for another year and if he decides to make a career out of it, he'll go back to Australia.
His one complaint is that classes aren't hard enough. "I don't just want to end up playing basketball for a couple of years, I want to set myself up in a career," although he says he has "too many clues" of what that might be.
"I want to study psychology, French, drama, anything I can get my hands on, just because I want to know about that; it's a curiosity sort of thing."
Walsh isn't terribly fazed by the economy, even though the Australian dollar is worth 66 cents in America. "It makes it hard to pay tuition."
"There's a lot of tough things to battle through and if you keep your chin up you can get through any of it. If you have a clear enough vision of what you want to do, you can get through anything," he said.
Turn away now, readers, if you've ever leaned back in your cubicle and said, "I wish I were living in the Boundary Waters, teaching kayaking, rope climbing, or ice fishing. Nebraska native Paige May is living your dream.
During our discussion about his place in the economy at Vermilion Community College in Ely on Wednesday, it became clear that there are areas where the economy of the wilderness is as isolated from the larger economy as Ely is from the big city.
He's enrolled in the outdoor leadership program, which teaches experiential education. Outward Bound is one such example. "It's pretty much just taking people out and teaching them these technical skills and backcountry travels. There's a self-improvement part, discovering you can do way more than you thought you could," he says.
In this case, the college he chose led to the career path he's following rather than the other way around. The program had recently been moved to Ely from International Falls. "As soon as I started the program, I loved it so much. In just my two years, I've gone from never having done any of this stuff -- canoeing or backpacking or rock climbing or kayaking -- and now I'm a certified kayak instructor, certified wilderness first responder, this summer I'll work for Outward Bound," he said. He hopes to be a dog musher in the winter, possibly in Alaska.
Economy? What about it? He won't make a lot of money; he sees it as a lifestyle choice. "You get by," he said. "Money will be tight, paying off student loans and such (he says he doesn't know how much he owes). There'll be that but I'm the kind of guy who can live cheap, with just bare essentials."
"This is a beautiful part of the country and you're living and working outdoors all of the time."3 Comments)
As you can tell by the half-dozen profiles that follow, I completed the second leg of the News Cut on Campus tour on Wednesday, with a stop at Vermilion Community College in Ely. It's a school that stresses programs surrounding natural resources, situated as it is at the edge of the Boundary Waters.
The reason for the tour is to see how people see themselves fitting into the economy and what their outlook is for the future -- both theirs as individuals, and ours as the collective economy.
What did I find on this stop? First, as I suspected, everybody has a great story to tell that leads them to this point in time. And I can't tell them all. I've had to leave some out for the sake of time. I also ran out of time to interview members of the law enforcement program who came by just as I was running off to speak to a class.
I was disappointed and I could see they were disappointed, too. "But thank you for coming up to Ely to talk to the students here," one young man said. Students have a lot to say. Students who aren't in the Twin Cities have just as much wisdom to impart, and a fraction of the opportunities to do so. That's the fun of this project.
Second, the students in Ely had less of a disconnect between their outlooks for themselves and the economy as a whole. Don't get me wrong: There's no right or wrong here. The schools I've selected are very different and that why I selected them.
Last week at Century College, I found a real passion for a specific goal and a confidence that it would be achieved. It was a confidence not extended to the economy as a whole.
Here's an explanation of it that I made during a visit last week on All Things Considered:
In Ely, I found less passion for the goal per se, and more passion for the journey toward, in many cases, goals that have yet to be completely defined. On the overall economy, I didn't find the angst we find in cubicles all over America. The cost of education -- student loans primarily -- is what makes most of the people I talked with almost gasp, and then accept as a fact of life to be faced... later.
What is the big deep meaning of all of this so far? I don't know. It's too early, other than to note that despite what we all know to be tough times, students from all walks of life, and all ages, are not going quietly into the good night.
After my interview session, I had the pleasure of speaking to the English Comp class, most of whom had never heard of me, and I guess that's the way I like it. I explained what this project is about and why I'm doing it, stressing that everybody I ask to let me interview them alway says, "I'm not very interesting." They are almost always wrong.
The instructor of the class, Meg Heiman, put it eloquently when she told the students that their journey which led them to be sitting in the classroom is a terrific story. There was the young man from Florida who was able to get as far as the Twin Cities on his way to Ely but was on his own to get the rest of the way. And did. There was Nathan, from the Twin Cities, who realized he wanted to do something more with his life when he was delivering for Jimmy John's. He delivered regularly to an auto dealership that didn't tip. And the final straw was the day they shorted him $2.50, and he had to make up the difference. Now, he's in the outdoor leadership program.
There was Randy, an older student, who was in the construction business until one day when he wasn't anymore. And
a woman whose name -- I'm sorry to say -- I don't recall Carlie told me about her passion for art. But her family convinced her there was no economic future in art, and so she's pursuing the wilderness program because she's all about her family. I'm guessing someday she'll merge the two.
My friends in this business often refer to these stories as "human interest" stories, which is code for "light fluffy stuff of no real importance in the big scheme of things." And I couldn't possibly disagree more.
The "issues" that we in public radio appropriately cite as being our focus, are lived by real people doing the best they can each day. There's nothing a politician or an academic can tell me, that is more eloquent than the daily journeys of people who -- on first thought -- don't think they have a story to tell.
Next Wednesday, I'll be at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
Update 1/22 5:55 p.m. - Here's the interview MPR Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer did with me about the stop in Ely. It airs on Friday's show.(3 Comments)