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Inspiration for college students motivated by desire for social change

MONTEVIDEO -- There are lots of college students still looking to make the world a better place, and preparing for careers that give them that opportunity.

Where do they go for inspiration?

Montevideo, where 35 students from colleges in the Twin Cities came to meet farmers committed to sustainable agriculture, rural business owners and authors.

"It's really been interesting,'' said Sonja Pipek of Staples, after hearing a panel of rural authors discuss their craft recently in the basement of the United Church of Christ Congregational in Montevideo. She was among the students who participated in the overnight tour of the Montevideo area.

The students are participants in a program known as the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs.

Born of the civil rights movement in the 1968, the organization is an opportunity for college students to learn about social justice, according to Julia Nerbonne, program director for the consortium in the Twin Cities.

Initially, the consortium provided students with opportunities to work for civil rights in communities across the country. It continues to provide students with summer internships in a variety of settings -- here and abroad -- dedicated to bringing social change and making life better for others, said Nerbonne.

In more recent years, it has also added a second component dedicated to environmental studies and stewardship, she said. Some of the students have taken on summer internships on farms and in rural communities.

This is the fifth year that students from the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs have come to Montevideo. Many from this group made the woodstove-heated cottage known as the "Brudio'' on Audrey Arner's and Richard Handeen's Moonstone Farm outside of Montevideo their headquarters for the recent overnight visit.

Nerbonne said they come to this area to tour farms using both sustainable and productive agriculture practices, learn about ethanol and renewable energy, and to look at rural life.

They also make west central Minnesota their destination due to its rich crop of authors who focus on rural themes. The late Paul Gruchow, one of Minnesota's most celebrated environmental authors, grew up on a farm outside of Montevideo.

A panel of eight authors with west central Minnesota ties spoke to the students as part of their visit.

Panelist Jim VanDerPol of rural Kerkhoven, who is both a writer and farmer, encouraged the students to pursue their interest in rural issues. He and his wife, LeeAnn, started farming in 1977 and watched Dust Bowl-like scenes of erosion occurring on the plowed fields surrounding their farm during dry years.

"It occurred to me that agriculture is critical to the environment,'' said VanDerPol, who has been writing essays about agriculture ever since. "It is our largest land use.''

Other panelists, such as Joe Amato, a retired history professor from Marshall, encouraged the students to explore a wide range of rural issues. He told the students that every area is "intrinsically rich and interesting.'' He has authored books on topics ranging from how those behind the Jerusalem artichoke scam of the 1980s exploited the rural dream to telling the story of the 1983 murder of two bankers by a farmer and his son indebted to the bank.

Florence Dacey of Cottonwood is known for her poetry and writings on environmental and social issues. She told the students that she began her social activism with the early civil rights movement in Birmingham, Ala., and took up feminist and environmental causes. Today she is interested in the struggle of native peoples.

Dacey told the college students that her hope is to "pass the torch'' to them to carry on the work.

For their part, the students responded by snapping up copies of the works published by the authors in the panel, and winning the praise of their instructor. Pointing out that the students could easily be back on their college campuses and enjoying all that the Twin Cities have to offer, Nerbonne said the students enjoyed the opportunity to immerse themselves in rural life.

"Motivated,'' she said of the students.