As new immigrant groups settle in Minnesota and here in St. Peter, the face of Minnesota is evolving and diversifying. When Gustavus first assumed its hilltop perch, Minnesota’s population was dominated by northern European immigrants like the school’s Swedish founders. The stereotype that this is a state full of WASPs no longer tells the complete story. As Gustavus students interact with the surrounding community, many have become involved with a variety of recent immigrant groups.
“Our whole mission here at Gustavus is to create an open and understanding environment, and I believe that understanding others and their cultures is a necessary step,” said Sophomore Psychology Major Marit Kyllo.
Through the Big Partner Little Partner mentorship program, Kyllo meets regularly with a local Somali student. “The respect that I have for my little partner and his family comes from just getting to know them and gaining a little understanding of where they are coming from. I believe everyone can benefit from opportunities like that,” Kyllo said.
Outside of Somalia, Minnesota now holds the largest population of Somali people. Located on Africa’s eastern coast, Somalia has not had a recognized government since 1991. Brutal civil war continues to rage in the country and displaces many of its citizens.
Pushed from their homes into refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, the United States accepts a certain amount of Somali asylum-seekers every year. A significant portion of refugees arrive in Minnesota because of the state’s expansive resettlement services.
Somalis are not the only African immigrants to settle in Minnesota in the last decade. In addition to Somali refugees, a significant population of Nuer Sudanese refugees have settled here as well. “There [have] been civil wars in Sudan, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Kenya,” Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies Bob Douglas said. “There have been a lot of displaced people from those civil wars.”
According to data from the Minnesota Foundation, in 1990 fewer than 5,000 Minnesota residents were born in Africa. Ten years later, the population surpassed 34,000. In 2000, the Census found that 13 percent of Minnesota’s foreign-born residents were from Africa, which is a higher percentage than any other state in the country.
In addition to African refugees, a thriving Latino population lives in Minnesota and around St. Peter. The Latino presence in Minnesota is not a new development–the first record of Latino residents dates back to the 1800s. The Latino population has consistently expanded, though.
Since the 1990 Census, Minnesota’s Latino population has more than tripled from 54,000 in 1990 to more than 175,000 in 2004. While the majority of Latinos are native U.S. citizens, first-generation Latinos grew exponentially during the 1990s.
Douglas strives to incorporate a service-learning component into his geography classes. “What I think a lot of Gustavus kids don’t realize is that right here in town there is a foreign world. You don’t have to go to Africa to study Somali culture or Sudanese culture or to gain insight into what’s going on,” Douglas said. “There’s a whole local way of learning about foreign cultures in a service learning capacity.”
Douglas’s students regularly tutor immigrants in English, and recently members of his World Regional Geography class helped to raise money for a benefit aiding two Mankato Sudanese families who lost loved ones in car accidents.
“It was great to learn about Sudan and Somalia and then go and meet people from those countries and learn more about the country from someone who has actually lived there,” said Sophomore Social Studies and History Teaching Major Amy Culver. “Every emigrant to the U.S. has a story to tell, and hearing their stories opens your eyes to what the world is really like.”
This experiential benefit is exactly what Douglas hopes to accomplish with service learning projects. He would like to see hands-on, service learning projects take a more prominent place in the Gustavus curriculum to encourage Gustavus students to interact with diverse populations within the broader community. “Better understanding through education of these different cultures needs to take place. Gustavus could take a leading role in doing this.”
Director of Community Service and Service Learning Jeffrey Rathlef hopes that service learning projects will increase in the future. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for growth,” Rathlef said.
Rathlef and Community Service Program Director Dave Newell currently teach a service learning course together in the Education Department to analyze school issues firsthand with a focus on issues of race and gender.
In the past, Rathlef helped to develop a service learning project in Oaxaca, Mexico, and learned from experience that they can be both challenging to establish but valuable as a learning experience. “I think it offers students a lens into a different cultural perspective. I think the road to outreach to immigrant groups is an important one,” he said.
Rathlef has ambitious hopes for the future. He believes that service learning can work most effectively as an educational tool when cultural competency is the primary focus of a program.
For Rathlef this means a program that is designed to focus on a “reflection of one’s own values and one’s own culture that actually becomes the focus of the endeavor. [Ultimately you] help yourself by learning about learning about another culture.”
While service learning is a developing component of a Gustavus education, volunteer work has a long history here. Many on-campus organizations work with immigrant populations. Once a week Gustavus students spend time with Latino members in an after-school mentorship program called Amigos. Junior Spanish Major Liam Glover co-coordinates Amigos, and every Thursday he goes to North Elementary School. Glover believes that working with people of other cultures and ethnicities challenges the stereotypes people may hold toward others.
“It teaches you not to just judge immigrants as a group, just like we can’t judge Americans as a group, like we can’t judge Minnesotans as a group. … It teaches [you] … to look beyond stereotypes and get to know them,” Glover said.
Given the opportunity to form relationships with recent immigrants, Glover is consistently pleased with what he finds. “Most of the immigrant population [are] just awesome people,” Glover said. In addition, Big Partner Little Partner (BPLP) puts special efforts into matching Gustavus students, many with a background speaking Spanish, with Latino St. Peter students.
Senior Psychology Major Jorge Munoz Pineda is the Latino Communication Coordinator for BPLP. He helps other big partners with language and cultural issues, while trying to expand the program’s reach to the Latino community. “The number of Latino little partners isn’t proportional to the number of Latino families in the community,” Munoz Pineda said.
“A lot of the Latino little partners that we have need a big partner more than your average St. Peter family because of socioeconomic situations we have,” Munoz Pineda said. In addition to the benefit to the student, though, he sees a mutual benefit to the big partner. He believes they become more familiar with the many challenges that face Latino people in St. Peter. “I think it’s good to open their eyes to that realization,” he said.
In addition to immigrant populations living in the United States, the Gustavus Center for International and Cultural Education tries to bring a broad cultural voice to campus. International Student Services Coordinator Jeff Anderson heads these efforts by working with international students.
“I think it is necessary for a quality education to interact with students form around the world. In a classroom, it makes a big difference in discussion because it gives a more global perspective,” Anderson said. Anderson believes Gustavus students interacting with international students is vital for the campus. “We want to internationalize the campus. By living with students, attending classes with them, and connecting with them through activities students at Gustavus learn how to work and communicate better with people of all different backgrounds,” Anderson said.
Douglas hopes that in the future, Gustavus will expand the opportunities students have to work with a diverse set of people with varied backgrounds, especially recent immigrants. While Douglas recognizes a stigma is often attached to recent immigrant populations, like those from eastern Africa and Latino countries, he sees little worth in dwelling negatively on the state’s new neighbors. “Whether you’re for or against them, like it or not, they’re going to be here,” Douglas said. “They add this tremendous talent, diversity and work ethic. They’re an asset. Let’s embrace it. Let’s learn about it.”