What Concordia University students want from St. Paul

What can I do for you?

As I hinted at in yesterday’s post, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman spoke with some Concordia University students on Tuesday to see what they want out of their city.

It’s part of an attempt to attract and keep young talent, and make St. Paul a vibrant place to work and live. Coleman mentioned in his State of the City address this week that he’d survey some college students, which he did at Concordia as well as Macalester College and Metropolitan State University.

I attended the hour-long Concordia session, which had more than a dozen students, as well as some faculty, administrators and community members.

The students, many of whom came from the Twin Cities, outstate Minnesota and Wisconsin, seemed pretty happy with St. Paul, saying it offered the activities of a big city without all the noise and congestion.

Student Marcel Malekebu (left) discusses social equality after academic coach Jan Baumgart (right) mentioned city safety concerns.

When it came to concerns, though, faculty and administrators were the ones who seemed the most frank.

Coleman’s question of whether students were using the city’s Nice Ride bike-sharing program drew little response. (It began in Minneapolis in 2010 and expanded to Minneapolis in 2011.) Coleman said it may just be too new and unfamiliar.

Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center of Hmong Studies, said traffic around the college may be too heavy for cyclists.

“I’m scared to drive on Hamline Avenue. (Laughter) … How can we as a city perhaps look at ways to expand the roads or sidewalks so that we can accommodate bikes, so that if students here want to take their bike to the light-rail station they can do that, or they can walk to the light-rail station without all this heavy traffic.”

The conversation took a turn toward personal safety — and racism.

Former Saint Paul Area Superintendent Mary Kay Boyd said that when she attended Concordia in the 1960s, students from outstate Minnesota didn’t think the streets surrounding the campus were safe.

She told Coleman:

“The safety factor is one that I wonder is still a concern. Because what we found from that is that there were some people who were not used to being around black people, and were afraid of black people. I think we’ve overcome a lot of that, but I think that St. Paul could do a lot more. We need to bring people together in a way that we understand each other. … Concordia is really a leader in that area, and St. Paul can be a leader in that area as well.”

Concordia academic coach Jan Baumgart said she talked to some students before coming to the discussion:

“The consensus I got from the female students is they love everything that they get to do there, love that they came to school here, … but it is what you said — the safety thing. They just don’t always feel safe. That would be the piece of St. Paul that was missing. … They don’t venture out singly, especially after dark.”

The majority of them, she said, were “either from the suburbs or the (outer?) metro area. … They feel safer when there’s less people or less chaos, is one answer that I got.”

Coleman responded:

“I always say you have a low crime rate, but that doesn’t matter if you feel threatened, or you’ve been burglarized, or you know someone who’s been assaulted. It’s a perception thing, and is as important, almost, as the reality.”

Former Concordia President Bob Holst said crime reporting by the news media makes it seem like St. Paul is more dangerous than it really is.

“If you’re outstate, and somebody gets shot in Minneapolis tonight, it may as well be on our campus in the Twin Cities. We’re a very safe community. On the other hand, there’s a saying that there’s always random violence, so I would tell students, ‘Don’t walk alone at night after dark.'”

He said racism is still latent in our culture, and that when he lived in Austin, the Twin Cities were seen as “a big, bad place.”

Several students said they like the idea of city-sponsored festivals that would enable students to mix more with the general population. They also said they’d like to feel more welcome, and that the city should consider more outreach.

Marcel Malekebu, a sociology junior from North Minneapolis, said students need more city events that promote social equality:

“Sometimes I feel like there are open arenas, but I feel like when I go there, I say something, and it gets tossed out. … So I don’t want to waste my time.”

The Star-Tribune was also there, and you can read its writeup here.

Reporter Kevin Duchschere caught this quote from Macalester student Alex Schieferdecker of New York, which made me chuckle:

“If I’m going to stay in St. Paul, I really want to be convinced that these are cities that are going to continue to be really fun and really interesting, and cities that I can brag about to people back in New York.”

I’ve asked the mayor’s office for their notes from the Macalester and Metropolitan State sessions, and I’ll share the highlights when I get them.