News Cut on Campus: Vermilion Community College

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.

  • Great Stuff.

  • Carlie

    Bob, My name’s Carlie! But don’t worry about it, at least you didn’t call me Charlie! That always happens to me. This was an amazing article!!!

  • Bob Collins

    Hi Carlie! Thanks for writing. I was hoping you would. I’ll make that change.

    I mean to tell you after class that you were a good sport for letting me play “6 Questions.” Not many people are willing to do that.

    I’m looking forward to hearing how you’ve married your passions of nature and art. I can say I knew you when.