By John Hamerlinck
I grew up in Wadena, Minnesota. This wonderful small town is the county seat of Wadena County. That makes sense right? Place names and their relative locations are not, however, always so perfectly aligned. For example, the community of Faribault, Minnesota is not in Faribault County. It is located in Rice County. The city of Rice – you guessed it, is not in Rice County; it is located in Benton County. There are lots of examples like this in Minnesota. Clearwater (the town) is not in Clearwater County, it’s in Wright County. Marshall is in Lyon County, not Marshall County. The community of Cottonwood is also in Lyon County, as opposed to Cottonwood County.
I mention these geographical oddities to serve as a reminder that a sense of place is important in this community-building work of ours. The naming peculiarities above are not simply happy accidents. There is a history and a story behind each example. Human values and human relationships helped name those spaces and turned them into places. Knowing a place’s name and where it is located on a map is important, but that really just identifies space. Without understanding more of the human dimensions of that space we can’t really have as deep of an impact on improving that place’s quality of life. (Note: If you are interested in the notion of humanistic geography check out the work of Yi-Fu Tuan.)
Sometimes, we think we know more about a place than we really do. Like everyone else, students have mental maps of the places. The mere mention of the name of a low-income urban neighborhood might for some people, paint a totally inaccurate picture of the day-to-day reality of that place. Students from urban areas might have similarly inaccurate mental maps of rural places. As folks in the rural development field like to say, “Once you’ve seen one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community.”
One challenge faced by faculty and civic engagement staff preparing to send students out into a community is orienting those students to particular places in the community. This orientation probably involves sharing knowledge about the mission and activities of a partner nonprofit organization and how they relate to the learning goals for the class.
An orientation might also involve some basic human geography and local history. For example, Macalester College’s Civic Engagement Center offers students self-guided tours with maps and demographic information for various Twin Cities areas. These are useful tools not only because Macalester has high numbers of out-of-state students, but also because no matter where you’re from, a little knowledge about local history and culture can go a long way toward building strong, sustained relationships between campuses and their community partners.
Is your institution engaged in similar efforts to prepare students? We’d love to hear about them.