Student Blogger Study USA

Learning as a Collective about Inequality in America

a large, single-story brick building cuts into the frame on a field of bright white snow and sky.

Every semester, one student from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Aidan Sponheim will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Inequality in America program this spring semester. Aidan is a third-year student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Psychology. Read on for Aidan’s initial impressions of the program!

It’s hard to put into words how refreshing it is that I look forward to class day after day this semester. Or that I have been able to talk so freely about my identity and what it means to my relationship with the outside world. Or that I am actually learning my classmates’ names, and developing real, genuine relationships with them. Or that I can call interning at a labor federation part of my course load. Or that I leave class each day and carry all of the knowledge I have cultivated straight into the real world where it is one hundred percent applicable. Or that I look forward to doing my homework, knowing that each reading given or each writing assigned will provide effective insight into my life journey, regardless of any academic institution.

Hi! My name is Aidan Sponheim, and I am a third year transfer student attending the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, currently pursuing a B.A. in Psychology. I live in the Students’ Cooperative on University Avenue in Dinkytown, and I transferred to the U this fall. I like to dance, take pictures of clouds, and have conversations with strangers.

This is me! I am waving into a mirror at the camera that I am holding in the kitchenette area where we make our communal coffee every morning!

HECUA appeared on my radar at the absolute perfect time for me. I haven’t gotten along with school very well ever since starting undergrad, and by the time this fall semester was wrapping up, it felt like a break to reset was needed.

Knowing HECUA’s reputation for being different and impactful in its educational programming I started to consider what pursuing such a semester experience would be like. I’d recently developed a fascination with cities, particularly Minneapolis, where I was born and raised. I was also acknowledging the reality that I knew almost nothing when it came to inequality in society (and all that it encompasses). With that in mind, I decided to apply for the Inequality in America Program. Throughout my high school experience and my beginning years of undergrad I always held the understanding that the world and specifically our country is hurting, but I could never find the room to pursue such issues and become more active within them. I believed the Inequality in America program would fulfill that space, allowing me to focus on things I am truly interested in for a whole semester.

The program has lived up to and even surpassed my initial expectations. Because it is structured in a way in which intersectionality prevails with all the program’s courses, our Inequality in America almost seems like one really complex class. Our homebase is the Dreamland Arts building in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood in Saint Paul. We’ve had the whole building to ourselves for a month now, and it feels like it’s becoming our space.

This is the coffee pot that makes the coffee (our fuel) for us every morning and helps get those transformational juices flowing.

Our instructor Phil spends the entire day with us there, facilitating discussions on reading seminar content, giving lectures from the program’s curriculum, and ultimately acting as a guide for us students. The program’s guest speakers come through the space frequently, sharing their stories and teaching my classmates and I about their lives and their work. There is perpetual flow and transformation within the space day by day providing a sustained newness to the program’s journey.

The basis of the course revolves around inequality in social, economic, and political terms. Stemming from this is an endless list of issues that we take time to dive into and understand through countless approaches. One day Phil could have us discussing one on one about social evaluative threat while another day we could all find ourselves receiving a presentation on the Minnesota Coalition for Homelessness by its executive director. The advantage of this program’s content is that it allows for so many opportunities when it comes to learning. Its disadvantage is that we could spend a whole semester learning about each and every topic we discuss.

A man sits behind a maroon velvet curtain that covers a cafe window in the Dreamland arts building.
 Our instructor Phil at his desk. Dreamland Arts is used primarily as a theater and you can tell a little bit from this pic.

I can already tell you now, Phil is one of the best instructors I have had the privilege to learn from. He has been teaching this program for over twenty years and so his mastery of its content is astounding. Phil has been teaching us about integral aspects of society – wealth, social status, poverty and homelessness (to name a few) – and has the ability to directly funnel it into our own lives. Phil has us take what we are learning and provides space for us to inform our lives and our pasts. He facilitates a kind of self reflection I have never experienced in any academic setting ever. As a result of this I am beginning to think in a refreshing yet unfamiliar manner, connecting what I learn in class to how I live my life, and how that interconnection affects my actions moving forward in time.

We are occasionally joined by community faculty member Julia Dinsmore, who brings wisdom and warmth to the space. When she joins us we are able to connect the things we learn with Phil to the realities of the world. Julia provides that reality, and she shares it through wisdom and care and honesty. It’s quite incredible to be in a room with an individual that is so perceptive, intuitive, loving and successful, not to mention poetic beyond belief. She and Phil share a wonderful bond that presents a cohesiveness from the class to the outside world. As a class of seven students, it feels like class after class we as a group are growing closer and closer. My classmates, Phil, Julia, and I are learning together. We play various roles but we are growing together, which is something I expected I would experience in my college career.

The other two courses in the program revolve around an internship. It’s simple as that: 20-plus hours a week, students work for an organization whose purpose aligns with the program’s theme. Among the internship sites for this semester are Take Action!, Second Harvest Heartland, and the East Freedom Library, just to name a few. I am interning with the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, helping out with their social media presence but also working with my supervisor, David, on legislative and political labor efforts. This internship has so much to offer and I am looking forward to using a whole entry to explain in depth the significance having an internship integrated into a program such as Inequality in America holds in a student’s learning experience. Also working with adults is pretty fun. Especially if they’re organizers.

It’s all been a lot thus far! It is such a big change from what I have become conditioned to expect as “college”, but it’s been tremendously refreshing. Among all the wondrous things that HECUA and the program have provided me thus far, the biggest privilege is that I am learning away from the University of Minnesota campus for a semester. In the past, feeling trapped inside a campus “bubble” can and has become far too real for me and is a big reason for why I applied to HECUA in the first place. I found myself becoming more and more aware of the stagnancy in my personal growth last semester, and it was only after I started to deliberately study at the Minneapolis Central Library (across the river and in the city) that I realized how much of an effect living in the University campus space had on my overall well being. Given the opportunity to call an arts building in a northwest Saint Paul neighborhood my “campus” for a semester, it feels like I have found something equivalent to an academic oasis. It feels like I am liberated from an institution and all of its baggage and that I am simply learning as a human and growing with it too.

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