November 29, 2016
By Mike Killeen
Whitney Court can teach her political science students at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University about U.S. presidents, but she can't tell them to go to work at the White House the next day and whip up a paper on environmental policy.
It's a little different with her State and Local Government class this semester. Not only can Court teach her students about the ins and outs of local government, each student in the class is participating in an experiential learning project in St. Cloud, Waite Park or Melrose.
"I've always been a big fan of experiential learning," said Court, assistant professor of political science at CSB and SJU. "We do have community governments and organizations around us that have a tremendous need. They're understaffed and under resourced. I've got 23 students in my class who are eager to go and find out about these areas.
"There's some great career prospects in this area, and I wanted them to see what these local governments are facing."
During the summer, Court contacted various local governments and organizations about possible projects her students could work on during the semester. Concurrently, she touched base with her students and found out what areas they were interested in, and their transportation availability.
"We had to find a balance between having something that the students are interested in, and meeting the needs of the community. This is a partnership," Court said.
Her efforts have produced some interesting projects for the students:
Jonah Duclos, a senior political science and communication double-major, "wasn't really sure" what projects would be part of the class. But when he heard that his hometown of Melrose was one of the cities involved, he was all in.
"I told (Court), 'That's where I grew up. I'd like to do something there,' '' Duclos said. "I just told her I'd be pretty much comfortable with anything."
Duclos is working with the city on the housing assessment and apartment vacancy survey, something that hasn't been done in 10 years. He has completed part of the project, which entailed talking to Melrose apartment managers and owners.
On Sept. 8, a fire damaged six apartments — displacing 20 residents — and 11 businesses in downtown Melrose.
"As far as the fire that occurred, the whole block was pretty much taken out. It didn't change the plan, but it's more urgent now," Duclos said.
The experiential learning component was attractive to Katie Stelzner, a senior political science major from Maple Grove, Minnesota.
"I thought it was perfect," Stelzner recalled. "I'll get some actual experience, something hopefully related to something that I wanted to do after graduation. It turned out really well, I thought, because I want to do something in the local environment, so the Melrose Lake study was perfect."
Stelzner said there is soil erosion in Melrose Lake. That is causing the lake to be underused by residents.
"What we're doing is, we are taking a lot of the research done by the City of Melrose with the Department of Natural Resources, as well as the research the Lake Association has done out there, and compiling it into one document that they can use to apply for a grant through the state or federal government," Stelzner said.
"I think it will help them with the property values once the lake is clean and looks nice," she added. "They can use it recreationally again. It might even help the area in general.
Shaunna Johnson has served 13 years as the city administrator for Waite Park. She called the three projects the students are conducting in Waite Park a unique relationship.
"We were very deliberate in the beginning," Johnson said. "Dr. Court wanted to make sure that she had projects that were going to have a timeframe, and that it was very project specific, which made it very easy for me. This is very meaningful this way, and a lot of the work they are doing will be very helpful to us."
Melrose city administrator Michael Brethorst agreed.
"The Saint John's-Saint Ben's caliber of students is outstanding. You have students who want to engage, they want to participate, they're inquisitive and they want to ask questions. With Dr. Court as their mentor and leader, they are able to fine-tune some of those questions that we as an organization are trying to facilitate. It's nice when you have a student who comes in prepared and is able to self-reflect and then analyze that data."
For Duclos, the class offers a nice addition to the experiential learning opportunities offered by the political science department, like the Washington, D.C., Summer Study Program.
"Students can participate in (the Washington program), and they get to see how things function at the national level," Duclos said. "For me, and for students who want to focus pretty much on the local aspect of politics, this is a great opportunity. It doesn't get better than this."
Stelzner, who was a part of the Washington program in summer 2015, said she feels that at the local level "you can impact much more change, be more involved in the process. You actually get to see the benefits of the work you're doing."