May 2023
Ken Foster
Ken Foster, Concordia College professor of political science and director of community engagement

Minnesota’s private colleges tend to be surrounded by leafy campuses and rolling lawns, sometimes even perched on hills. Nevertheless, they remain connected to their communities, responding with expertise and generosity to meet the needs of local people and nonprofits.

“In today’s day and age, it’s more important than ever to be integrated in the community in which we’re situated,” says Ken Foster, professor of political science and director of community engagement at Concordia College in Moorhead. “Our students need that contact to get outside the classroom, and we want to be an agent of good. If we can do anything to help, we want to do that.”

On the receiving end, “the more interaction we can get with Concordia College, the better,” says Bill Grommesh, executive director of Hope Inc., an organization serving people with mobility challenges, ages two to 70.

What follows are a few examples of community engagement work at member colleges, which were recently recognized with awards from Iowa and Minnesota Campus Compact (read the complete list here).

‘There are so many disadvantages that are unjust’

Kerrie Roozen and Ambria Crusan
Student Kerrie Roozen (left) and Assistant Professor Ambria Crusan presenting research in August 2022

Kerrie Roozen was a career server working at a white-tablecloth restaurant in south Minneapolis until COVID struck. When the governor mandated restaurant closings, she took stock and evaluated her options. It struck her that she could continue to serve delicious food, but would have greater job security — and, arguably, impact — as a registered dietitian.

Roozen signed up for classes at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. As part of her course work, she cares for patients in a community clinic. St. Mary’s Medical and Rehabilitative Therapy (SMMART) Clinic primarily serves people who have migrated from Latin American countries — many of them uninsured — which has forced Roozen to polish her Spanish language and culture skills.

“I know all the fruits and vegetables,” she says.

Despite being a nontraditional student — and mother of a five-year-old — Roozen recalls the jitters she had meeting her first patient.

“It was nerve-wracking,” she says. “There are so many unknowns; you can only garner so much information from a chart note. It was definitely scary. But that’s okay to have nerves going in to treating patients, because that means you care.”

Thankfully, she explained, “Ambria was there to guide us.”

Ambria Crusan
Ambria Crusan, St. Kate assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics

Ambria Crusan, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics, has been at St. Catherine University since 2017. Her emphasis is on community-engaged learning and research, which earned her a Civic Engagement Leadership Award from Campus Compact this spring.

Currently, Crusan and Roozen are part of a team researching what’s known as the “healthy immigrant effect.”

“We’ve been studying changes to access to fruits and vegetables and its effects on hypertension,” Crusan says. “We’ve been doing one-on-one interviews with patients: what their diet looked like before they came here and what they can access now.” That is where Roozen’s knowledge of Spanish produce, from manzanas to zanahorias, comes in.

“In Latin America, at markets and stands it’s much easier to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables,” Crusan says. “Here, they’re not well supported by fresh items. The fruits they get are canned or frozen. They say ‘I don’t know how to cook them. Frozen asparagus? I don’t know what to do with that.’”

But a disconnect can result when a student raised in the United States encounters traditions held by other cultures. Without training in cultural sensitivity, their biases can sour the interactions.

Says Crusan: “A big thing that often comes up with patients is the use of fatty meats. It’s a cultural norm [in many Latino/Hispanic cultures] to have a fatty pork cut and stew it. Our students are like, ‘High cholesterol!’ It’s teaching through some of those moments about portion sizes or ‘white-people’ food. How do we find the right balance to teach students to be culturally appropriate and provide optimal care for their patients?”

“It’s part of [practicing] cultural humility,” Crusan emphasizes. “Take that step back and listen and learn.”

Her first clinic patient, Roozen recalls, “had hypertension and also dyslipidemia — essentially your bad cholesterol is higher — a very busy schedule, working all the time. A lot of stressors.”

Despite her newbie nerves, that first appointment steeled Roozen’s resolve to advocate for patients who face barriers to health care.

“I would love to work with populations who face food insecurity,” she says. “It’s what I’m really passionate about. It’s where I feel I’m meant to be. Immigrant populations — the way that our systems are set up — there are so many disadvantages that are unjust.”

‘It’s therapy in a fun way’

Kaisa Syväoja
Kaisa Syväoja, St. Scholastica assistant professor and fieldwork specialist in occupational therapy

This June, clients of the student-run maurices Community Clinic at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth will gather for fun. That, for some adolescents, can be serious work.

“We’re running sessions for two weeks focused on all things play, for younger kiddos. Then we’re doing a game club, Lego club, for older kiddos, focusing on social skills and building friendships,” says Kaisa Syväoja, assistant professor and fieldwork specialist in the Department of Occupational Therapy.

Because COVID-19 disrupted so many daily routines, especially for young people, these summertime camps meet an urgent need. Such sessions help bridge the skills youth work on during the school year, such as keeping fresh their social skills, developing self-regulation methods or practicing the fine-motor skills needed for writing. Other sessions concentrate on parent or caregiver education, offering techniques for use in the home.

One group in June will emphasize the importance of shut-eye for teens. “We’re focused on developing better patterns for sleep and how it helps their engagement in daily routines,” Syväoja says. “That one is focused heavily on mental health. We do all sorts of activities. It’s therapy in a fun way.”

Founded in 2016, the faculty-facilitated student-run clinic is both physical, on campus, and also held across partnerships in the Duluth area. “Students are working directly with patients, from evaluation to discharge,” she says. “That’s the benefit of having the pro-bono clinics. We can fit the needs of the surrounding communities.”

Blending occupational therapy with physical therapy where possible, the clinic is transformational for both clinical students and clients. “Our clients come to us because they trust us,” she says. “They’re as much the teacher as we are.”

Student-led services fill in where patients’ insurance leaves off. In 2022, the community clinic completed 1,402 sessions, delivering an estimated savings of over $117,000.

As a faculty member, Syväoja has immense confidence in her students. And the direct patient contact gives students the opportunity to discover it in themselves.

“Once [they] see what it looks like in practice, it really clicks,” she says. “It’s that ‘aha, light bulb’ moment.”

‘Future educators with options for their clients’

The play Treasure Island was reaching its climax, and the cast — as directed — was exiting stage left at a run. One actor was a client of Hope, Inc., who uses a walker and is deaf.

“You should have seen him. He ran with his walker,” says Bill Grommesh, executive director of Hope, Inc., who was in the audience. “The joy on his face was the best ever. His parents are just so thrilled with that.”

That boy was one of many participants in a partnership between Hope, Inc., and Concordia College. Concordia students lead a theater program, play sled hockey and wheelchair basketball, and even clean out storage lockers if that’s what’s needed.

Concordia College students participating in wheelchair basketball
Concordia College students participating in wheelchair basketball therapy

“It’s really important that we reach these guys,” Grommesh says. “They’re future educators who will know there are options for their clients, like adaptive sports. When the college gets these students involved in what we do, they look at it differently.”

For Concordia students, the result is less fear over working with people with disabilities and a greater awareness of adaptive activities.

“If I come across a nonprofit that wants to partner, I reach out across campus to see if there’s any interest in that,” says Ken Foster of Concordia College. “The driving reason why we do it is to link theory with practice — with people, organization and issues within the community.”

What do Hope Inc. clients get from it? Says Grommesh: “Incredible self-confidence and self-worth. They absolutely love it. It normalizes them; they’re interacting with able-bodied folks. It makes them feel special.”

By Diane Richard