Fall 2019

Small-town heroes


Like most city kids, Felicia Galvan knew nothing about farm equipment. The University of Minnesota Morris (UMM) anthropology major had been interested in growing and preparing healthful foods since high school, when she joined a Native youth gardening program. But tractors and plows? Not so much.

That changed this past year, when Galvan, a junior from the Twin Cities area, applied for a student internship with UMM’s Center for Small Towns. The center paired her with Red Lake, Minnesota, nonprofit 4-Directions Development, which tasked her with finding out which kinds of farm equipment would be best for starting a 1- to 2-acre family farm. The results of her research will be used at the Red Lake Reservation training garden, where community members learn about different farming practices. The ongoing goal is to increase access to fresh, organic produce, ultimately achieving “food sovereignty,” or the ability to grow enough food to feed every Red Lake tribal member. 

“I learned a lot about farming equipment,” Galvan says. “That was a huge learning curve.” She also attended farming conferences, where she met Minnesota farmers who became informal advisors.

The Center for Small Towns has been matching students like Galvan with Minnesota community groups for 25 years. Towns with populations of 5,000 or fewer have access to the talent and resources at UMM, and students get an opportunity to apply their classroom learning to solving real-world problems and strengthen their connections to greater Minnesota.  In spring 2019, the center put 28 students to work on 24 projects around the state.

The projects are diverse—everything from gathering community health data to analyzing the need for a new community center to creating after-school programs for kids. In some cases, students work as research assistants on faculty projects.

“We are serving communities in a pretty broad range of places and spaces,” says Argie Manolis, director of civic learning and engagement. “A former staff member of the center used to say, ‘If you know one small town, you know one small town.’ That’s why we encourage students to do the work of understanding the big picture—the history and the people who live there—and not just the project they’re working on.”


The center started out doing research on small towns, but results from early focus groups revealed that communities didn’t want to be studied; they wanted help with retaining economic and social vitality, promotion and marketing, and technology. So the focus shifted to community requests. Student learning, now equally important, took a backseat.

“Students’ stereotypes about small towns and small-town life really get turned on their heads. They learn that the rural-urban divide isn’t what it appears to be in the media, and that rural communities have this incredible capacity to create change.”
Argie Manolis

Today, each community designs and directs the project and determines the student’s role. The center finds a student who’s the right fit. Felicia Galvan, for example, had gardening and food co-op experience, and her mother’s family is from the White Earth Reservation. Her interest in Native foods made her an especially good match.

In addition to valuable work experience, students come away with a less tangible but equally important benefit. “Students’ stereotypes about small towns and small-town life really get turned on their heads,” Manolis says. 

This is true of students from larger cities, several of whom have remained in rural communities after graduation, and small-town students, who may be self-conscious about coming from a place whose name their friends don’t recognize. “They learn that the rural-urban divide isn’t what it appears to be in the media, and that rural communities have this incredible capacity to create change,” she says.

The center promotes student success in another important way—by helping them pay for their education. All internships are paid, and all are entirely funded by grants and gifts. 

“We’re incredibly reliant on donor funding,” Manolis says. “And we are very appreciative when one of our alumni chooses to donate, because we know that they finally are in a position where they can support work that was important to them.”

As for Galvan, she says her year-long internship gave her an appreciation of Minnesota’s tight-knit farming community and rekindled her interest in working the land. Is farming in her post-college future? “I keep getting thrown into this farming work somehow,” she says with a laugh, “so maybe there’s something there. Even if I don’t become a farmer, I definitely think that I will still be in circles where I will try my best to support and advocate for their work.”

Laura Silver is a Minneapolis writer.